So last night I found myself sitting in the salubrious surroundings of the Streatham Odeon. On my own.
I have long thought this to be a sensible course of action (the watching films alone bit – not the Streatham Odeon), but I have rarely had the social cajones to do it. I mean, it’s a bit of a statement, isn’t it? “Ticket for one, please. Yes, I am, quite literally, mate-less. What of it?”
I arrived at my seat naively early, and the berths either side of me stayed resolutely empty for a very long time. A stark reminder of my solitude, one might say. But it was a full theatre so eventually my fellow punters had to learn how to scootch along – even if it meant sitting next to the loser slap bang in the middle of the row. “No that seat’s not taken,” I said, through gritted teeth. Twice. Left and Right. After that it was OK. To the casual observer I was merely one of the crowd.
And anyway, the cinema is designed to be enjoyed alone. It is hardly the place for a friendly chat, or a date or a school reunion. Simply whispering “pass the wine gums” to a cherished companion is enough to elicit enraged “shushes!” from strangers, and it’s hard to look cool on a date when you have just been showered with spittle.
And speaking of spittle… The film I chose for this auspicious occasion was The King’s Speech. Partly due, I confess, to the gushing plaudits, but also because it starred Helena Bonham Carter. Who I love. A lot.
No doubt it can be problematic for most thesps to channel enough horsey aloofness in order to “do a Windsor” - to be able to get that plummy accent and ever-so-slightly inbred sneer just right. No worries here. Indeed, old Helena probably had to ratchet the poshness down a notch or two. Because when it comes to poshness Helena makes Prince Charles look like Kerry Katona.
She was in her element here, with lots of stiff-armed waving, and “helair, how d’yoo doos?” But I admit it made me a little queasy, sitting back and concluding that I actively fancied the Queen Mum (albeit a spunky, pre-war, pre-gin-soaked-old-lady version).
Because, it turns out HBC is absolutely perfect for the role of the young Queen Mother. Who knew? Not many people who saw her as the grimy sex kitten from Fight Club, or the, er, monkey from Planet of the Apes I’d wager. But it’s not for me to drone on about her versatility – or to mention that infuriating and frankly lazy label of “quirky” that people seem to affix to her like she’s some kind of asinine Indie pop princess. Yes she’s a little alternative. Yes she wears mad clothes, has haystack hair and a life-partner who looks like a cross between Robert Smith out of The Cure and a bag of spanners.
But from all the evidence I’ve seen (and as many friends, acquaintances and people I stop on the street will attest, I’ve been a keen observer of hers ever since she flounced about in a Florentine cornfield during Room with a View in 1985), HBC is charismatic, kind, witty and an all round good egg. She also happens to be (and I say this with only a hint of favouritism) perhaps the most extraordinary actress of her generation. So there.
Noteworthy though this may be – and in my infatuation I was completely smitten by her subtle little nose wrinkles and ballsy can-do attitude - her screen time here is minimal.
For The King’s Speech is really all about the friendship between two men. Colin Firth plays Bertie, the stammering, reluctant George VI in waiting, and Geoffrey Rush is his Larrikin Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue. And it is as charming and enjoyable a two-hander as you will ever see.
The set-up is frighteningly simple. Most of the meaningful action takes place in Logue’s dusty flat in Harley Street with its quiet familiarity and questionable wallpaper. A world away from the palaces and the politicians.
And it is here that Logue begins to peel away the layers of Bertie’s neurosis in a series of nicely-paced vignettes depicting the years before and after the King’s coronation in the wake of the Edward and Mrs. Simpson scandal. Some unconventional vocal exercises here, a bit of potentially treasonable intimate psychological analysis there - Logue is the first commoner to penetrate Bertie’s bubble and the only person able to help him control his crippling speech impediment.
Gratuitous, unecessary HBC close-up...
It is a neat irony for a cast of great British character actors, famed for honeyed, erudite enunciation to be almost perpetually hushed as one of their own struggles manfully to blurt out the simplest phrases.
Tight close-ups on Firth’s sweating upper lip bring the frustration into alarmingly sharp focus. Several scenes offer an uncomfortable watch, as Bertie’s dutiful subjects shuffle about and stare at their shoes during his interminable speeches.
With the recent invention of the wireless, it soon becomes clear that the new King will be frequently required to speak to his people, rather than sit around looking regal and decorative as his predecessors had done. The film builds to a climax with Logue helping him prepare for his biggest challenge yet: The solemn address to the nation after war is declared on Hitler.
Had it not been handled so beautifully, the concept could have sailed into choppy moral waters. Hang on a minute, one could be forgiven for thinking – the Second World War’s just broken out here! You know? The big one! And everyone seems more worried about a stiff-collared Royal stick-in-the-mud getting his words out! There’s Winston Churchill praying his Maj manages to say “p-p-principle” without spitting all over the place! There’s Helena Bonham Carter biting her bottom lip (very beautifully, I might add)! Has the world gone mad?! There’s a great big bloody war on!
But we don’t think that. We watch and we squirm and will the words out of him like primary school teachers miming the letters to little Timmy at the Spelling Bee. And upon the King’s redemption, we rejoice, and the war is a sideshow – a bagatelle to worry about some other time. And somehow it just works.
Much of this is down to Firth, who somehow manages to make the King’s disability believable without degenerating into a gurning stereotypical self-important posh bloke. But the star of the show is undoubtedly Rush, face like a gargoyle, who is pitch-perfect as the unqualified quack “doctor” full of unrefined charm and unlikely grace.
The casting people were clearly delighted with their work, but I fear they rather blotted their copybook by hiring Guy Pearce as Bertie’s feckless older brother. There is something a little farcical about the scenes where the monarchy is thrown into turmoil when the rich divorcee Wallis Simpson elopes with Mike off Neighbours.
“Where did he pick up that English accent, Erinsborough?” I scoffed, nudging the person next to me. Then I realised I didn’t know her, and it was all a little awkward. Still – alone or not, go and see The King’s Speech. It’s very good. That is all.
In the interests of equality... Rush as Lionel Logue