Category Archives: Movies

The King’s Speech: De-Colinizing Mr. Darcy

For a little less than a year, I’ve been following a Jane Austen e-mail list run by McGill University. Not surprisingly, several posts have recently appeared commenting upon the on-screen Pride and Prejudice reunion in the Oscar-nominated film “The King’s Speech”–namely the brief exchange between Colin Firth (Bertie/King George VI) and Jennifer Ehle (the wife of speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush). Firth and Ehle were famously paired as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC/A and E adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 1995, and their off-screen romantic liaison has been commented upon exhaustively and, perhaps, rather whistfully, by Austenites and Firth fans alike. As both an Austenite and Colin Firth fan, I admit to indulging in a moment of fangirlish, stomach-swooping delight at seeing them reconnecting on-screen, if only briefly.

The general consensus seems to be that Firth has at last given up the ghost of Mr. Darcy that has haunted him for the past decade and a half. While we cannot deny the career Debt Mr. Firth owes Mr. Darcy, nor should we cease to acknowledge Firth’s contribution to the Jane Austen film phenomenon, this characterization casts the rest of his career in shadow. there seems to have developed an irritating trend on the part of certain Austenites to claim Firth’s achievement at finally transcending the Darcy tag and then immediately proceed to compare the meeting between the couple in each film. Several fans have even expressed an intention to watch “The King’s Speech” and “Pride and Prejudice” alongside one another to compare the encounter between Bertie and Logue’s wife to those between Mr. Darcy and Lizzie; presumably one would turn to the (in)famous wet shirt scene. While an interesting exercise in analyzing the dynamic between the actors, it seems, I would argue, merely to recast Firth (and Ehle by association) within the very shadow from under which fans claim he has at last emerged.

One fan even goes so far as to speculate whether, in his predicted Oscar acceptance speech,Firth will “give the devil his due and bring Darcy into the mix as a kind of verbal epitaph.” If he does–and I don’t believe he will–it would only perpetuate the “Darcy discourse”. I can envision the headlines on Monday: “Mr. Darcy Get’s his Due: Colin Firth scoops up his first Academy Award.” Firth has, of course, learned over the years to accept the tag with characteristic Colinesque humor, so while gesturing in Darcy’s direction would seem to be taking one step forward and two steps back, it is not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility. Still, I think it would potentially deflect attention from the role for which he (will hopefully) be receiving such a well-deserved honor.

All speculation will, of course, be at an end in just four more days; and who knows? Perhaps one final word from Firth will at last silence us on this subject forever.

P.S. the blog post to which I refer above can be found here

Over Dickon’s Dead Body? Virility/Masculinity in The Secret Garden

Like countless lovers of literature, I couldn’t tell you just how many times I’ve read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, but this semester I get to experience the joy of teaching it for the first time, and as always, the greatest pleasure I get from teaching old favorites is rediscovering them along with students who are reading them for the first time.

I’m teaching the novel in a course on 20th Century British Literature, subtitled British Literature and the Body, and yesterday, a seemingly predictable discussion of nature symbolism as metonymic  of the female womb/female genitalia took a rather unexpected turn when one of my students–a male, not surprisingly–pointed out that the garden might be Mary’s, and the land–Misselthwaite Manor and its grounds–might be Colin’s, but Dickon is the first to really plant anything in the garden; he is the one who knows the land intimately and how best to cultivate it; he is the one who sows the seeds. This comment invited an investigation of the contrast between Dickon and Colin and the notion that Dickon is the more masculine of the two; he is, of course, an obvious rival for Mary’s affection–as indicated by Colin’s fierce jealousy–but Burnett scholars have quite exhaustively commented upon the fact that the final third of the novel focuses almost entirely on Colin’s transformation from effeminate invalid to healthy boy-man (see for instance Danielle E. Price, “Cultivating Mary: the Victorian Secret Garden” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 26, no.1  (2001); Anna Krugovoy Silver, “Domesticating Bronte’s Moors: Motherhood in The Secret Garden,” The Lion and the Unicorn 21, no.2 (1997).

Two of the novel’s adaptations–the 1993 Warner Adaptation and the 1987 Hallmark adaptation–clearly recognize Dickon’s threat to Colin’s burgeoning masculinity; in the Warner adaptation, Dickon, in knight-in-shining-armor fashion, appears in a scene at Colin’s window on horseback, calling to Mary to come outside, which Mary does; compared with the weak, whining Colin, confined to his couch, Dickon is the embodiment of ideal victorian masculinity.

The Hallmark adaptation ends following World War I; Colin has received a shrapnel wound in the leg and appears leaning on a cane; Dickon, Ben Weatherstaff reveals, has been killed. Colin’s limp and his cane naturally suggest impotence–underscored by the frustration in his tone when he questions Mary about her refusal to respond to not one, but two proposals of marriage.

I’ve always read this scene as a revision of the text that responds to the argument that the novel’s conclusion, by marginalizing Mary and making Colin the narrative focus, problematizes a feminist interpretation of the narrative. The focus in this final scene is largely on Mary and Mary’s agency. This reading, of course, conveniently overlooks Dickon because he is (physically) absent, though like Mrs. Craven, his spirit is allocated a pervasive presence.

Both Colin and Dickon are heros; Colin’s symbolic impotence might also be interpreted as a necessary rite of passage to legitimate his manhood; no longer a poor, pitiful, wining creature, he is a brave defender of the empire. When Mary expresses concern about his release from the hospital, he replies gallantly, “Do you think I’d let a little shrapnel stop me?”, wearing his battle wound as a badge of courage.
Dickon, on the other hand, has died; Colin might be wounded, but Dickon’s entire body–his life–is the ultimate sacrifice and call to heroism. Is Dickon then the braver, stronger, and ultimately more masculine man? Had he lived, would Mary have  chosen him? She gives every indication that she loves Colin and wants to Mary him, but she speaks so tenderly of Dickon and his memory that one can’t help wondering if she had secretly prefered him at some time.

Yet we don’t know how Dickon dies, precisely, nor how Colin is wounded, but the fact that Dickon’s death occurs in a forest–a place with “green, growing things” in Mary’s words–suggests a place of peace far-removed from the bloodstained battlefield where Colin is presumably shot. Limp notwithstanding, Colin still cuts a rather striking pose in this final scene; his battle has been one of personhood as well as patriotism. He has faught not just for his country, but for his manhood, and he has won both. In the end, Colin, not Dickon, gets the girl. Despite the textual evidence–however minimal–Dickon is only a perceived, not an actual threat to Colin simply because he has no design on Mary. Mary is arguably marginalized in the novel, but if she is, so is Dickon. Neither of them receive any credit in the final hour for restoring Colin to health and longevity, but Dickon most certainly doesn’t expect it. He simply fades into the foliage from which he emerged, leaving in his wake a  trail of roses and the lingering love that is his gift.

The King’s Speech: the Story of a Man, not a Monarch

The nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them, but I can’t speak.

This statement admirably encapsulates the complexity of the story conveyed in “The King’s Speech”–a story where the personal and the political intersect and entangle.

“The King’s Speech” tells the story of the Duke of Yourk (the current Queen Elizabeth’s father), thrust onto the throne after the abdication of his elder brother. In the age of radio, required to address his people both at home and in England’s far-flung colonies, George VI–or “Bertie”– struggles to overcome a life-long stammer with the aid and friendship of his unorthodox Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue. After failed attempts at more traditional methods of “treatment”–from the use of marbles in the mouth to aid in pronunciation to gargling and smoking to relax the larynx–Logue offers a blend of breathing treatments and psychoanalysis, asking probing questions, refusing to use the duke’s royal title, and doing just what every faithful British subject is warned not to do—exposing the personal life of a public family and treating the monarch as a man.

You can’t watch this movie without being acutely aware of its political framework, which, given that this is a movie about the British Royal Family, probably goes without saying. Nearly every scene, from the opening of the film at the Empire Exhibition to Bertie’s wartime speech at its conclusion captured the precarious political point on which the British empire was trying to balance in the middle of the twentieth century as it struggled to maintain an imperial stronghold on the world amid the First and Second World Wars. Telling the story of King George VII’s speech difficulties highlights this slippery grip; even today, english is often thought of as the language of imperialism, and a monarch who “can’t speak”, as Bertie puts it with ironic elequence, communicates a message of national and ppolitical weakness when juxtaposed with Hitler’s skill as an orator.

The use of shakespeare also works to remind the audience of the association of the English language with cultural as well as political superiority. Logue’s recitation of Richard III’s speech is particularly effective in this context because not only is it, like Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, one of the most well-known speeches in the Shakespeare Canon, it is, more importantly, a king’s speech–a speech about power, delivered by a monarch who will stop at nothing to obtain it. Not to mention, it’s Shakespeare, and linguisticly speaking, far more elequent than Bertie imagines he can ever be.

The backdrop of wartime England also highlights the personal battle of bravery undergone in this story. as was so aptly said in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” , “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” In Bertie’s case, it was obviously the latter; this story of a stammering monarch is the story of a man who reminds us of the paradox of power–that those who possess the most potential for power are the ones who, more often than not, want none of it.

Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonam Carter–along with the rest of the cast–give outstanding performances. Firth’s interpretation of Berti as man, not monarch, is powerfully moving. He handles the mechanics of the stammer with amazing authenticity. I felt my own throat tightening at Bertie’s every word, tasting his tension. Most powerful are, I think, the scenes in which his stammer subsides during his conversations with Logue; Bertie slips so imperceptibly into normal speech that it underscores the dynamic of intimacy between the two men. We realize that in Logue’s presence, Bertie can be what he is–a man, not a monarch. Given the intense physical concentration and mechanical challenge of an actor trying to stammer and portray a man struggling to overcome precisely that, this is an astoundingly convincing bit of acting.

Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue is equally amazing; invasive, unorthodox, he isn’t so much aware that he is overstepping boundaries as he is endeavoring to dissolve them with his insistance on “total equality” that strips away the monarch’s mask to reveal the man beneath. Rush’s Logue is alternately cocky and compassionate and the perfect bold-faced reflection of the Bertie within.

Helena Bonham Carter conveys the strength and strain of the Queen Mother with equal gravity. Taking command one moment, tenderly comforting the next, her strongest moment is, I think, by far the scene in which she comforts a hysterically tearful Bertie, conveying the quiet strength that only a supportive spouse can offer.

I’ll be much surprised if these three–but especially Rush and Firth–don’t scoop up an Oscar or Golden Globe.

the humor provided a comic contrast to the more serious scenes without being jarring, the cursing and singing scenes both chuckle-worthy and offering relief from the intensity of following Bertie’s struggles on-screen. from a practical standpoint, some might have found it physically draining to follow the dialogue otherwise, though I found it intriguing. those used to characteristically Colinesque humor with his deadpan delivery will not be disappointed.

In short, to borrow one of Bertie’s favorite words, “Bloody” brilliant!

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1

I’ve just been to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, and I honestly must say that of the seven movies, this one was by far my favorite; naturally, it didn’t feel nearly as hurried because it was planned to be spread over two parts, but even so, I felt the explanations about elements of the plot–the story of the deathly hallows, for instance–were detailed enough to allow anyone unfamiliar with the books to follow along, but not too revealing.
The only thing the film didn’t touch on in as much detail, which I suppose will have to be dealt more with in the second half, was the new regime under Voldemort–specifically its impact on Hogwarts and the magical community. Voldemort’s sneering comments about mating with muggle-borns was a bit in the vicinity of Hitleresque eugenics, but numerous readers have commented upon the parallels between the pureblood philosophy and ethnic cleansing. I think the idea of compulsory education for all children in the magical community underscores the level of governmental control under Voldemort’s regime, but again, it’s difficult to draw conclusions about the way these issues are being treated without having seen both parts of the film.
The dynamic among the treo was fabulous; the tension was palpable; Daniel Radcliffe’s performance in particular was spot-on. The balance between humor and horror was managed well, though I did feel at times that there wasn’t enough time allowed for audience reaction; my laughter had hardly died away in places before I had time to brace myself against the shock of an attack, but I think that served as a means of drawing the audience into the constant tension–the unpredictability of the bouts of calm and storm that the readers and characters alike experience.
I did think it ended rather abruptly; I rather thought stopping just after Ron destroys the horcrux and the three reunite might have been a less awkward point, but thinking about it, that would have meant leaving off before we get to the story of the three brothers that explains the legend of the deathly hallows. I don’t suppose there could have been a non cliff-hangerish way to leave off.
In short, very well-worth the wait, and highly enjoyable!