Monday musings on Australian literature: The King’s Speech (Movie)

His Majesty King George VI of the United Kingdom.

King George VI, c. 1942 (Presumed Public Domain: From the United Nations Information Office, via Wikipedia)

I wasn’t going to review The King’s Speech, the current biopic about how Lionel Logue helped cure George VI‘s stuttering, because I mostly review Australian films. But, I do like a biopic and this film does have some Australian connections. These connections may not be particularly literary but, what the heck, at least one of the connections does relate to language … and so I’ve decided to make the review my first Monday musings of 2011.

Like most who’ve seen this film, I was engaged by it and would happily see it again to further explore its subtleties and nuances. Of course it helps that it stars Colin Firth. Anyone who has played Mr Darcy as well as he did is a friend of mine! And, it stars other actors from that wonderful 1995 miniseries of Pride and prejudice: Jennifer Ehle (Lizzie Bennet then, Myrtle Logue now) and David Bamber (Mr Collins then, a theatrical producer now). In addition, its actors include some Australians, including Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue and Guy Pearce as David, the abdicating King Edward VIII. And, let’s not forget the often underappreciated Helena Bonham Carter who plays George VI’s wife (later to become the much beloved Queen Mum). (Did you know that Helena’s distant cousin, Crispin, played Mr Bingley in the Firth-Ehle Pride and prejudice? Oh, the tangled webs!)

Now, I’m no expert in the history of George VI. I knew he was a shy man who did not want the monarchy; I knew he was a very popular monarch; and I was vaguely aware that he had stammered. I knew, however, absolutely nothing about the role an Australian played in the management (cure?) of this stammer. Consequently, I’m not going to comment, as I believe some others have done, on the veracity of the film. It is a biopic after all. Rather, I’ll just mention a couple of issues.

One relates to the fact that it was an Australian who helped George (Bertie to his family). At the time, the 1920s-1940s, Australians were very much seen as the “colonials” and not, really, as people who could teach the Brits anything. In the film this is portrayed pretty clearly through the Archbishop of Canterbury’s (played by another British acting great, Derek Jacobi) disdain for Logue and his lack of formal credentials, despite the successes he had already achieved with Bertie. I was tickled by the subtle way the film conveyed this little part of the history between our two nations. The tension between the two men is not subtle, but this particular subtext is.

The other issue has nothing to do with Australia, but is related to the film’s very effective sound design. First though, let’s talk Colin Firth. Can you imagine being an actor playing someone who can’t speak? What a challenge, but Firth pulls it off. The film is not afraid to let time drag when Bertie/George tries to speak. It lets the clicks and stutters reverberate as he struggles to get a word out . It’s excruciating – and is sustained just to the point at which we feel his pain and that of those around him but are not irritated by it. The score underpinning the movie is pretty spot on too – lovely original music combined with well-known music (particularly by Mozart and Beethoven). But, here’s my issue. I was intrigued by the use of a favourite piece of mine, the first movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, to background the King’s first war-time speech. Beethoven? For a speech about a second war with the Germans? That was to me weird … Was it intended to be ironic in some way? The King’s triumphant speech set against the reality of what was to come?

Whatever, it’s an engaging film which not only tells a specific story about English royalty, but is also about universals: perseverance and hard work (the King’s in overcoming his speech problem), supporting, encouraging and standing by the one you love (his wife), and the value of experience and ingenuity over paper qualifications (Logue).

If you haven’t seen it yet, do … and tell them an Australian sent you!

Bright star, or a thing of beauty?

What can ail thee knight at arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.

I have always loved these opening lines  of John Keats‘ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. The first two lines with their mystical, but also traditionally Romantic, melancholy, just roll off the tongue. You want to read them out loud. The third line though, with its harder sounds, starts to suggest something different, and this difference is delivered in the wonderful shock of the shorter last line with its more staccato like rhythm. This, by the way, is my rather idiosyncratic introduction to the recent biopic, Bright Star, about John Keats and Fanny Brawne. I’m not being totally idiosyncratic though as several lines of the poem are recited in the movie…

Bright Star, which is also the title of a Keats’ poem, was written and directed by the wonderful Jane Campion (whom we Aussies like to call our own though she was born in New Zealand). According to the credits she based much of her script on a biography of Keats by Andrew Motion. The film is set in the last years of Keats’ life (surely this is not a spoiler?) between 1818 and 1821, so the fashions are exactly those I love – Regency. Through this and a host of other details, the film feels historically accurate – in tone and look at least. I only know the basics of Keats’ life so can’t really comment (without doing a lot of research!) on its veracity to the details of his and Fanny’s story. But, as I’ve said before, I’m not sure that matters if the essence of their story is achieved, and I believe it is.

John Keats' grave, Rome

John Keats grave, Rome (Courtesy: Piero Montesacro, via Wikipedia, under CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The film has an elegaic feel – in its muted colours, slow pace, and the rather  (unusually so for a period piece) spare music. This spare use of (spare!) music is carried through to the credits during which, instead of music, we hear Ben Whishaw recite Keats’ poetry. Despite its slow march towards its inevitable conclusion, however, the film also has some light moments, many of them in the lovely family scenes which include Fanny’s brother and sister.

One of the endearing things about the film is Fanny’s comment early on that poetry “is a strain” to understand. Poetry is not an easy art form – how many people have you heard say “I don’t get poetry”? – and there is something reassuring in having that validated.  After all, Fanny is, in a way, everygirl – compassionate but also a little wilful, somewhat coy but at the same time rather knowing. She is, as conceived by Campion and played rivettingly by Australian actor Abbie Cornish, entirely believable as a universal teen girl, but one living in the early 19th century.

In a scene between the lovers (albeit an unconsummated love), Whishaw, as Keats, recites the film’s eponymous poem:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.

Here is Keats expressing the paradoxical nature of life and love, the way permanence and impermanence can exist side by side. This is rather poignant given the facts of his life: he died at just 25 years of age but his poetry has become firmly entrenched among our classics.

If you are interested in Keats’ story, or if you like films that slowly but beautifully evoke a past era, then this is likely to be a film for you. If, on the other hand, you like something with a bit of zing and an element of surprise, then you might best look elsewhere… For me though, this film is “a thing of beauty”.

Challenge of the biopic, Redux

Back in July I posted about biopics and about the tensions inherent between fact and fiction in what is, essentially, a dramatisation. Despite this – despite the fact that I know I can’t rely on them for the facts – I like biopics. Of course, I don’t like all biopics, and there are some I like more than others. The reasons I like them are, I was going to say, rather capricious, but perhaps idiosyncratic is a better word. Depending on the particular film, I may like it because:

  • I am interested in the person; and/or
  • I am interested in the subject (literature, dance, theatre, music, etc) or the era (World War 2, the Regency or Tudor periods, etc); and/or
  • I like the director; and/or
  • It is simply a good film!

In the case of biopics I’m a bit more relaxed about quality – and when I say this I mean I am more relaxed regarding cinematic style and innovation. Being relaxed about quality though doesn’t mean I like poor performance, poor scripts, poor direction. It just means I’m more tolerant of, shall we say, less cinematically challenging films if they are biopics. This probably doesn’t make sense to anyone else, but there you are!

And, I have to say, that most biopics we see are of the conventional variety. That’s not to say that there aren’t innovative biopics out there  – because there are  (such as, for example, the relatively recent and exciting I’m not there about Bob Dylan) – but most, it seems to me, are not. This is certainly the case with the one I saw this weekend, Mao’s Last Dancer. It is conventionally told – but the story itself is so powerful, who cares? From my memory of the book, the film is “true” to his story even if the facts have been stretched here and there for dramatic effect. It is, anyhow, worth seeing for the three actors who play Li Cunxin, and for the gorgeous dance sequences choreographed by Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon.

Image courtesy Clker.Com

Image courtesy Clker.Com

It just so happens that in the October issue of Limelight is an article by Lynden Barber called “Hollywood goes classical”. It’s about biopics of musicians. In it he quotes Australian composer Nigel Westlake as saying:

I don’t think there would be any historian who would consider these films anything more than entertainment and as about as historically accurate as Gladiator.

Well, I ask, why would an historian, or anyone, expect a biopic to be historically accurate? A biopic is not a documentary but a dramatisation. Do we read/see Shakespeare’s history plays for history? No! And neither should we look to biopics for verifiable historical fact. We can, though, expect them to provide some truths. In the case of Mao’s Last Dancer those truths include the resilience and mental strength exhibited by a boy removed from his home at a young age by “the state” and forced to make his own way in the world.

I am of course being somewhat disingenuous here. A biopic does need to be reasonably factual – otherwise, why not make a film about a completely fictional character – but we should not expect it to be citable fact. This makes it a rather slippery beast – and one that is fun to talk and write about!

The Young Victoria

As I wrote in a past post, I do love a biopic! And this week I saw another one, The Young Victoria. In many ways it covers much the same ground as the 2001 miniseries, Victoria & Albert. Both show Victoria’s lonely childhood, the poor relationship between her mother and Victoria’s uncle the King, her mother’s poor choice of adviser, and the political manipulations from Europe to forge a match between her and Albert. However, while Victoria & Albert, being a miniseries and therefore longer, takes the story up to Albert’s death, The Young Victoria stops at the point where Victoria recognises that she can and should give Albert a “real” role in the palace/the monarchy. The essence of the story is not really spoilt by stopping it here – and, anyhow, the film fills in the rest of their story through a few end-titles.

As a biopic, it’s a lovely romance. As a film, it’s a pretty traditional costume drama. That said, the acting is excellent – with Emily Blunt as Victoria and Rupert Friend as Albert being particularly convincing. The costuming and the sets are sumptuous. The script is crisp and natural.  The music is full and strong, but a little heavy-handed in places, a little too traditionally appropriate to an historical royal biopic, if you know what I mean.

From my knowledge, the film is pretty accurate historically, with just a few bits here and there exaggerated for dramatic effect. It deals lightly but clearly enough with the various political agendas running at the time – as they related to Victoria. All in all, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable film…and if it’s about anything (besides, that is, being the story of Victoria and her Albert) it’s about the idealism of youth. What a lovely pair they made.

The challenge of the biopic

I do love a biopic – essentially, a movie dramatisation of the life of a real person – but I also know that I must always keep in mind that it is a dramatisation. That is, it is not a biography but more like a biographical novel. The challenge with this is that when I know the subject well – such as Jane Austen (have I told you I’m a fan?!) – I can tell where poetic licence has been taken in order to tell a good story. But, when I don’t know the subject well, I can walk away believing that what I have just seen are the facts.

A year or so ago, I saw the film Becoming Jane. It created quite a stir among Janeites because it took great liberties with her life: it took what our sources can only confirm as an attraction (possibly an intense one, but one that was quickly nipped in the bud) and created a highly romantic story that included a near-elopement. To the purists this took too great a liberty with her life. To the feminists it was “corrupt” in its implication that it was only as a result of this “romance” that Austen was able to write the love stories that she did. To the general public though it was a lovely period piece about someone who has become one of the century’s icons. Me? I thought it was a very entertaining movie – but it was not my Jane!

Coco Chanel, 1920s (Presumed public domain)

Coco Chanel, 1920s (Presumed public domain)

Coco Avant Chanel

Anyhow, this brings me to the film I saw today, Coco Avant Chanel. I know next to nothing about Coco Chanel’s life and so I could easily walk away from this film believing that I know exactly how she got to be the fashion doyenne that she was, and exactly what role was played by two men – the Frenchman Balsan and the Englishman Arthur “Boy” Capel – in the development of her early career. That would, though, be a bit disingenuous of me. And the film itself should clue me into that a bit as it clearly skirted across some parts of her story. For example, at one point it showed Balsan treating her almost as a whore (or kept woman – “my geisha”) and then suddenly accepting her into his rather wild “fold”. It showed “Boy” as her first great love but rather glossed over the financial arrangement between them, something which the film implies compromised Coco’s sense of independence. It teased us with a close relationship with a sister but didn’t resolve that. However, I did enjoy the movie. I liked the transition from 10 year old Coco (then called Gabrielle) to the young woman peering through the curtains before going on to perform in a cabaret-style bar. It neatly gave us the sense that she was an outsider, watching and waiting to join in. That is certainly one of the themes of her story as told in this film. Oh, and I loved the way it showed her subversive attitude to fashion – her blending of comfort (no corsets, looser fit, androgynous look) with style and elegance. A woman after my own heart, though I must admit that comfort rather than style is what I mostly achieve!

Co-producer of Becoming JaneGraham Broadbent, says of his film that ‘There are documented facts and we’ve joined the dots in our own Austenesque landscape.’ Should we care – does it matter – that we can’t all see the joins between the dots when we see a biopic?