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The King’s Speech is a total triumph, Gulliver’s Travels is a shipwreck

by Mark Burger

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The King’s Speech is a grand and great movie, one of the very best of 2010 and a triumph for all involved. It’s a quintessential example of the sort of historical drama that the British tend to do so well. The story is true, the characters are real, and the result is fabulous.

Colin Firth, who just gets better and better, portrays Prince Albert, the Duke of York, who has long been afflicted with a stammer that makes him, to an extent, a Royal recluse. Public speaking is torturous, and there appears to be no cure for his malady.

The prince’s problem comes at a particularly precarious time in history: The nation is sliding inexorably toward World War II, King George V (Michael Gambon) is advancing in years and faltering in health, and older brother David (Guy Pearce), heir to the throne, seems more interested in dallying with American divorcee Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) than attending to matters of state.

Upon George V’s death, David becomes King Edward VIII and, as a result of his affair with Simpson, is compelled to abdicate the throne. That leaves Albert, stammer or no stammer….

Firth brilliantly captures the embarrassment of Albert’s affliction and the isolation it brings him. Yet he’s a proud man and bound by a weighty tradition, and at no time is that tradition weightier than now. If he doesn’t assume the mantle (and the Crown) that is his birthright, the very future of the British empire will undoubtedly be thrown into turmoil.

In desperation, he turns to Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian ‘migr’ and sometime stage actor who makes ends meet by teaching elocution to students, with particular success in helping those who stutter.

For Logue, the honor is not in tutoring Albert but in succeeding. Refusing to adhere to protocol by calling Albert his nickname (“Bertie”) and running him through vocal exercises. That he uses the words of Shakespeare to achieve his ends only adds to the pleasure. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, rattling off Shakespeare’s dialogue? That in itself might well make one of the year’s better movies!

As it stands, The King’s Speech is one of the best.

If Bertie complains or resists, Logue doesn’t fight him. He’s got history on his side, and he knows it. Bertie knows it, too, and he also knows that time is running out and that the entire nation is counting on him — and that, already, many of his subjects are despairing that prospect. George V is dead, Edward VIII has abdicated, and Albert (nee George VI) is their last resort.

Down the line, the performances are a pleasure: Firth and Rush are in superb form, backed in equally superlative fashion by Helena Bonham Carter as Bertie’s wife Elizabeth (mother of Britain’s current monarch), Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, Derek Jacobi (delightfully fussy) as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Winston-Salem’s own Jennifer Ehle as Logue’s wife Myrtle, Anthony Andrews as one-time prime minister Stanley Baldwin, Claire Bloom (welcome back!) as Queen Mary and Gambon’s superb turn as King George. Every actor a pro, every performance a gem.

The King’s Speech never resorts to maudlin sentiment or melodramatic tearjerker tactics. It tells its true story with humanity, humor and a refreshing unpretentiousness. Therein lies the success of Tom Hooper’s direction, David Seidler’s screenplay, and its uniformly excellent acting.

With the Academy Award nominations looming, this may be the film to beat. It will definitely be a strong contender. The Academy loves those great British movies. For that matter, so do I.

Catastrophe has stuck the latest screen version of Gulliver’s Travels, and it’s all up there on the screen.

The filmmakers have taken the basic framework of Jonathan Swift’s classic tale and tossed it aside in favor of showcasing leading man (and executive producer) Jack Black’s indefatigable energy and penchant for mugging. As a result, whatever charm the original story had is trampled by shtick and silliness.

Black, of course playing the title role, is a nebbish from New York who finds himself lost in the Bermuda Triangle and stranded in the miniature kingdom of Lilliput. There, his size and charm (debatable) endear him to the populace. It is there he also discovers such important things as confidence and self worth, thereby dumbing down Swift’s story. Severely.

Black brings his customary energy to the proceedings, but it’s all for naught.

Although he’s a giant for most of the movie, the actor seems diminished by this expansive yet empty film. Product placements abound to an almost distracting degree. Are we supposed to be watching a movie or a commercial? These days, with some movies, it’s genuinely hard to tell.

Co-stars Emily Blunt, Jason Segel and Amanda Peet cannot be faulted for a lack of energy. Like Black, they too try to make something out of Gulliver’s Travels, but there’s nothing to be had here. Gulliver’s Travails is more like it.

All the production design in the world, no matter how expensive (make no mistake, this movie cost a lot to make), cannot compensate for the sheer inanity and desperation on display here. It’s a colossal waste of talent, money and time. Everything about the movie is too easy, except watching it.

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