Are you excited about the new movie from England? The one that’s probably going to be nominated for a lot of Academy Awards? No, not that one, wizard fans. Terribly sorry about that. But you’re used to being snubbed by now, right? Sure you are. Six “Harry Potter” movies with a combined total of seven Academy Award nominations for things like Art Direction and Visual Effects and not one single win. You’ll simply have to console yourself with the knowledge that those movies are the most popular franchise on the planet. Now that that’s settled, let’s talk about “The King’s Speech.” It would like some awards, please.
“The King’s Speech” stars Colin Firth as England’s King George VI, who rises to the title in the 1930s after his brother, Edward, abdicates the throne to marry Wallis Simpson. One problem: he has a stammer. Obviously, this will never do. Enter Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, a jolly speech therapist who’s not only a commoner — and no respecter of royal position — but also an (ahem) Australian. It’s all quite troubling.
But, wouldn’t you know it, Lionel and “Bertie” (King G’s first name was Albert and the Royal Family referred to him by that nickname) work diligently and in a most amusing yet unorthodox manner to correct the King’s speech and turn him into the leader the country needs as it enters World War II. It’s gently rousing and warmly moving, the kind of crowd-pleaser for older Anglophile audiences that the Academy can’t wait to employ in the effort to class up the Oscar telecast.
A nomination in a major category for “Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 1,” would provide the Academy Awards with a built-in audience of, oh say, several million extra people, but it's still unlikely. One must mind tradition, after all, and when the Academy thinks of England, it imagines not wizard's robes, but lovely formal dinner attire. And a few of the following highly specific characteristics …
Royalty like they probably never were
Except for Mel Gibson, no one makes cinematic epics based on Bible stories anymore. So the British Royal Family has become the go-to source for sweeping tales of intrigue, ethical breaches and grand gestures of power. Nevermind that we’ve reached the part of history where most of the major true stories have been told (why else would there be a movie coming out about royal speech therapy?). Filmmakers can simply resurrect those old tales with all new casts of young stars. And more importantly, these historical accounts can be remixed in completely new ways, because facts are less important than selling a past full of wit, pluck, bravery, cleverness and a sort of bemused sense of humor that seems as much of a birthright as the royal jewels.
It makes no difference if Queen Elizabeth II ever really behaved the way she does in “The Queen.” Quite-nearly-true story or terribly-untrue-true story, it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that now we all think she’s a little more adorable and the obsessive Anglophile fact-checkers among us can still feel smug and indignant about being more correct than a movie. Everyone wins!
Casts full of fancy people Hollywood pretends not to fear
Helen Mirren, Helena Bonham Carter, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Sir Ian McKellen, Tom Wilkinson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon and pretty much any British adult who’s ever been knighted or co-starred in — surprise — a “Harry Potter” film. These actors are the ones who make people like Ashton Kutcher tremble and wear nerdy glasses to compensate, because after enough films playing a Duchess or a Lord it rubs off and people start to curtsy in your presence. (Exception to this: Hugh Grant. Once you’ve been in a Drew Barrymore romantic comedy and arrested for renting a prostitute, you can still play a Prime Minister but no one’s going to mistake you for one when you’re in line at Starbucks.)
Set on estates with gardens so big you could land a commercial airliner on them
The only people who can afford to live like this anymore are Madonna and Sting, which is why this type of movie requires a period time frame. It’s always best if the plot takes place in a country home with 40 rooms and a staff of two dozen. The men dress in tuxedos for dinner and the ladies spend their mornings bathing. It can be witty comedy like “Gosford Park” or a searing indictment of the moneyed class like “Brideshead Revisited,” but it all goes down easier when the silver is heirloom, sterling and recently polished, the upper lips remain stiff and the jaws firmly locked. It’s kind of a hard and fast rule that Kristin Scott Thomas be somehow involved. She’s really the best at that sort of thing.
More tea, Vicar?
Never underestimate the Pavlovian response American Anglophiles have to signifiers of coziness. Hot cups of milky PG Tips, tartan, tweed, sweaters, freezing rain and roaring hearths are as essential to this genre as breast augmentation is to porn. Never mind that in “An Education,” Carey Mulligan’s young character, yearning for a more sophisticated life, actively rebels against this very type of warm hominess. The movie revels in scenes of her family’s staid but charming domestic life all the same because it knows what you like.
That last moment of innocence before The War
It doesn’t really matter which war it was, but World War II tends to dominate the discussion. Never mind that it caused terrifying destruction, movie logic knows that it was also responsible for making people brave and strong and determined and sexy. Tonally, this can take the form of a lovably bawdy burlesque troop keeping calm and carrying on like in “Mrs. Henderson Presents” or it can be the ruin of everyone and everything like in “Atonement.” Just as long as there’s sacrifice and tears, a speech from Winston Churchill about the great land and its great people and, eventually, the love of someone’s life lost in the process, all the negative pleasure centers get massaged.
Secrets and lies, mostly vintage
“The Wings of The Dove,” the one where Helena Bonham Carter and Linus Roache conspire to woo a rich woman out of her money? Now that’s the kind of well-heeled, richly costumed scandal the Academy likes. Sure, Mike Leigh’s contemporary family drama “Secrets and Lies” earned its share of nominations, but generally, period pieces are where the action is. They are where the shame of clandestine affairs or the desperate attempt to cloak social embarrassment lives most comfortably. Cold, hard, contemporary stories like 2009’s critically acclaimed “Fish Tank,” about a troubled teenage girl living in public housing, is not the kind of place where a disapproving matriarch sternly intones, “This will never do.” Result? No Oscar. Warm, friendly modernity, on the other hand, gets a few nods from time to time, but Richard Curtis-sponsored lightning like “Four Weddings and a Funeral” doesn’t strike very often.
Well, I never!
There’s not enough room to list every British movie about “knowing your place.” They can’t stop making them: “Maurice,” “Howard’s End,” “The Remains of The Day,” and on and on. Repression quietly resisted, rules broken behind closed doors, corsets untied for a touch more breathing room, class lines crossed with civility and the tidiest of rebellions are good news for any award-hungry British entry. It allows for stiff characters to eventually yield to emotion (even if that emotion is disgust and outrage), lets forbidden lovers have their way (even if its in exile in some decadent place like Italy), brings a tea cup of common sense to meaninglessly cruel convention and allows audiences to chuckle over how uptight people used to be back in the olden days. Just don’t go getting any big ideas, “Potter” kids. You’ve been loud, showy troublemakers all along. The Academy still frowns on that. And tradition must be observed.
Dave White is a film critic for Movies.com