Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite made history at the 2020 Academy Awards, becoming the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture.
In this series, in reverse chronological order, I compare previous years’ Best Picture and Best International Feature to see how many other foreign-language films ought to have been given the top gong.
**** This article contains spoilers! ****
The King’s Speech won four awards at the 2011 Oscars — including the big three: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay; not to mention Best Actor for Colin Firth.
To give you a picture of the competition, its strongest opponent was David Fincher’s Facebook movie The Social Network, but also in the running were Christopher Nolan’s visually masterful, high-concept sci-fi Inception, the Coen Brothers’ raw and violent western True Grit, and Darren Aronofsky’s psychological drama Black Swan, plus one of the finest boxing movies ever made, The Fighter.
That The King’s Speech won against such an impressive line-up says more about the Academy than the quality of the film itself. Plumping for a period drama, featuring British actors playing British royalty, with a sprinkling of mental health, a dash of humour and an idiosyncratically underdog monarch, the Academy effectively played it safe.
When I spoke to people about the film, the strongest praise it garnered was: “It was entertaining” — which it is, sure enough.
Set between 1925 and 1939, director Tom Hooper chronicles the reluctant rise to the throne of stammering, socially awkward Albert Windsor, played by Firth. The film is bookended by two of Bertie’s speeches: one at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, which is an appalling ordeal for the stuttering Duke and his embarrassed audience; and the other as King George VI, announcing Britain’s declaration of war with Germany.
After traditional (ancient Greek) remedies fail to cure Bertie of his stammer, his wife, played with resolute poshness by Helena Bonham-Carter, secures the services of unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue, an Australian immigrant living in London with an excellent reputation, but no formal qualifications. His approach has a psychoanalytical touch, and seeks to overcome fumbling words with friendly informality, as well as the rather silly oratory exercises of an actor. Indeed, much of the film’s humour is derived from seeing a future king roll around on the floor, or flap his arms around bleating like an animal, or swearing like an overexcited schoolboy.
All the world’s a stage
Incidentally, The King’s Speech was the first in a run of four out of five Best-Picture winners that featured acting as a saving grace, or that glorified Hollywood: most notably Argo, in which a movie literally saves the day. It’s admittedly less prominent here, but Lionel is both the protagonist’s saviour and an enthusiastic am-dram actor, using his experience from the stage to coach the Duke.
And like in Argo and Birdman (though not so much in The Artist), there is a wry self-deprecating quip in the script — a veritable wink at their filmmaking peers. In The King’s Speech, it is delivered by Bertie’s father, King George V, played with regal conviction by Michael Gambon as he laments the advent of radio:
“In the past, all a King had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse. Now we must invade people’s homes and ingratiate ourselves with them. This family’s been reduced to those lowest, basest of all creatures. We’ve become actors!”
While we’re on the subject of acting, the performances are strong across the board, from Bonham-Carter’s heart-of-gold, spoon-of-silver portrayal of the subsequent Queen Mother; to Gambon’s rendition both as impatient father and later as muddled old man signing away his authority.
Firth is particularly impressive, and deserving of his Best Actor award. His stammer is convincingly guttural, his bursts of frustrated rage understandable, and his delivery of the famous 1939 speech is a syllable-perfect rendition of its original utterance. Quite remarkable.
I should say, I am not a monarchist, and knew very little about the royals who ruled Britain in the years between the two world wars. Consequently, much of the story was comfortingly informative — perhaps intentionally suited to an American audience? Case in point: the abdication of Bertie’s older brother, Edward VIII, in order to marry his twice-divorced American mistress was quite the plot twist for those ignorant republicans among us.
However, some will justifiably criticise the omission of Bertie’s support for appeasement, and indeed the reluctance among the royal family to go to war with Nazi Germany, which they considered a useful buffer against the spread of Soviet communism. Many Windsors had even toured Germany in the 30s, and met the Führer. The closest the film comes to that blighted history is when Bertie is watching a speech of Hitler’s, and his daughter asks, “Papa, what’s he saying?” and he replies with hesitant admiration, “I don’t know, but he seems to be saying it rather well.”
By contrast, the advantage of fiction is you can build a story around a theme and make every element inform or scrutinise that theme, without the frivolous dalliance of historical accuracy to muddy your ideas. That is precisely how Danish director Susanne Bier developed In A Better World, or Hævnen to give it its Danish name. Bier wanted to represent the perception among Scandinavians that they are secure and safe, in an idyllic society of tax and healthcare, law and order, but also how that safety is a thin veneer.
Hævnen incorporates four main characters, a young teenager called Christian grieving for his deceased mother; his father, upon whom Christian unfairly places the blame for his mother’s death; the friend that Christian makes at school, Elias, who is bullied for being a Swede in Denmark; and Elias’s father, Anton, a doctor who spends much of his time abroad, running a clinic in an unspecified African country.
I had assumed Hævnen was Danish for “heaven”, since the film was renamed In A Better World for English-speaking audiences — a clear reference to the afterlife, and presumably referencing Christian’s mother. But “hævnen” is Danish for “the vengeance”, and a much better name considering the film is about masculine attitudes towards violence.
The narrative primarily focuses on the arc of Christian, who channels his misplaced rage into small acts vigilantism, beating the senses out of Elias’s bully, and later spearheading a plan to blow up the van of a hot-headed mechanic who slapped Elias’s father after a meaningless altercation on a playground.
Turn the other cheek
Christian’s sense of schoolyard justice, of earning respect and defending one’s honour, is completely warped by his grief, and Elias’s father does his best to steer the children back onto a path of non-violence. To satisfy the boys’ sense of burning injustice, Anton confronts the mechanic, and is slapped again, but claims victory by demonstrating the thick-headed idiocy of the yob. Who is the real man? What kind of a man attacks someone in front of children?
Mikael Persbrandt does a wonderful job portraying Anton as the idealist doctor, particularly as he battles with his own principles of pacifism when working at the African aid camp. A local war lord, Big Man, has been mutilating pregnant women and killing anyone who dissents; but one day Big Man arrives in the camp in a speeding jeep escorted by armed men and demands the doctor treat the maggot-riddled wound in his leg. Anton’s Hippocratic oath demands he treat the monster, but later his conscience gets the better of him.
Of course, the trick with fiction is to subtly obfuscate your theme and not let it obstruct the realism, and most reviewers’ criticism of Hævnen falls squarely into this bracket…
Lay it on thick
Though the exploration of pacifism and masculinity is often extremely powerful, there is a shallowness to the story in the way it brings everything to a neat conclusion. For instance, while it is cathartic to see Big Man thwarted, you are left to wonder who will fill the power vacuum he leaves behind, and what recompense might his replacement seek for their hitherto leader’s demise? Will the aid camp be attacked? Will the local population suffer further brutal murders? Does violence not beget violence?
Similarly, the boys’ spectacular moment of explosive revenge is treated by police as no more than a misdemeanour, with no signs of punishment. Insert a gif of John Travolta looking around for consequences.
You aslo get a feeling that Africa is used exploitatively as metaphor for rampant evil, mainly because the storyline at the aid camp has no bearing on life in Denmark. In fact, the two sides of the narrative only interact once, when Elias Skypes his father seeking advice, and Anton is too emotionally exhausted after the episode with Big Man to listen.
Still, there are several brilliant moments of drama dotted throughout the film, not least from Anton’s estranged wife Marianne, played by Trine Dyrholm, as she confronts Christian at the hospital where her son lies in the recovery room. Her depth of emotion and furious indignation cut deep, and you wonder how you would treat a boy who almost got your son killed.
It’s not too hard to pick a winner this time. Both these films juxtaposed naïve innocence against unspeakable savagery, but while Hævnen was arguably trite in its tackling of the theme, at least there was plenty of meat on the bone. Meanwhile, The King’s Speech is a competent, faintly humorous and well-acted period drama that otherwise elicited in me very little emotional response.
Though tied with a ribbon Hævnen’s denouement may be, it has bags of drama from the get-go, some great characters, and two perfectly cast teens in William Jøhnk Juels Nielsen and Markus Rygaard carrying the thrust of the narrative. It may not be perfect, it may be too engineered, but it is brimming with empathy, and I think it deserves to win this International Oscar Showdown.
Well, I’ll be! The international movies have taken the lead for the first time since Roma shot out of the blocks, bringing the series to 5–4.
Next time we have Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker up against Argentinian crime thriller The Secret In Their Eyes. Can Hollywood take the series to a tie on its way into the 2000s? Check in next time to find out!
The King’s Speech
In A Better World
Also in this series
- 2019: Green Book vs Roma
- 2018: The Shape of Water vs A Fantastic Woman
- 2017: Moonlight vs The Salesman
- 2016: Spotlight vs Son of Saul
- 2015: Birdman vs Ida
- 2014: 12 Years A Slave vs The Great Beauty
- 2013: Argo vs Amour
- 2012: The Artist vs A Separation
- 2010: The Hurt Locker vs The Secret In Their Eyes
- 2009: Slumdog Millionaire vs Departures
- 2008: No Country For Old Men vs The Counterfeiters
- 2007: The Departed vs The Lives Of Others
- 2006: Crash vs Tsotsi
- 2005: Million Dollar Baby vs The Sea Inside
- 2004: The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King vs The Barbarian Invasions
- 2003: Chicago vs Nowhere In Africa
- 2002: A Beautiful Mind vs No Man’s Land