Thursday, December 30, 2010

Finding Balance in 'The King's Speech'

The plot of The King's Speech is hardly surprising. If you study (or remember) history prior to WWII, you'll undoubtedly know of the royalty portrayed on screen. With a title like The King's Speech, the climactic moments aren't really all that much of a climax.

The performances meet the high expectations set for award winners and nominees. Colin Firth brilliantly creates a character in a role with very little physicality--beyond facial expression and a few scenes detailing the "mechanics" of solving the King's speech problem. Clearly, this isn't a holiday action film. Instead, the close-ups emphasize every element of the Prince's, later King's, ability to speak; the film's focus is the journey to allow this man a voice in his own life as much as in history.

What stands out beyond the expected, however, is the teeter-totter shifting of balance between Firth's Bertie/King George VI and everyone else. Many scenes cut between head shots of two characters, one on either side of the screen, with the intercut images providing a strange sense of balance. Most often this visual balance occurs in revelatory scenes between Bertie and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Throughout the majority of the film, Firth is filmed to one side of the screen, creating a sense of being off balance, especially when the other side is "empty"--devoid of background image or another person. Only when he truly feels "kingly" does this balance change--and the King dominates the center of the screen.

At times, the camera follows Firth, such as when the King makes that long walk toward the mic, bringing the audience along in his wake. A fisheye lens captures the new King's viewpoint as he stands before an appraising crowd. The contrast between foggy London and dark, emerging figures presents interesting shades of gray and creates stark visuals. When you see the film (or see it again), pay attention to lighting and camera movement.

The camera angles, strategic lighting, and contrasts between classes, the lead characters, and light-dark effects are far more interesting than the expected story development, although Helena Bonham Carter shines as Elizabeth, later known as the Queen Mother. Again, the film's emphasis on her character hinges on line delivery and facial expression. A sly smile, quirk of an eyebrow, and witty comment all provide depth to what could have been a simple "stand by your man" role.

I went to this film to see outstanding performances, and I wasn't disappointed. The way the camera told the story, however, gave me something unexpectedly memorable.

All in the (Extended) Family

It's no secret that I like certain performers and tend to write about them. My mama taught me well that if I can't say something nice, not to say anything at all. Although that adage shouldn't apply to journalistic ethics, it can be applied to those topics I choose to research or review for entertainment. (If you've read my books, you know that I'm much more critical there than in blogs.) I've amended mama's adage so that it means if I can write something positive, I will. So--yes, I'm blog-biased--but here's a good example why.

During the current run of Aladdin, John Barrowman fell ill with flu and couldn't make some performances. His understudy, 18-year-old Greg Barrowman, stepped into Aladdin's pointy shoes and found himself in the spotlight. Perhaps this panto is really a non-gender-specific Cinderella story--or, as Broadway musicals and movies have shown through the decades, the understudy who gets the chance to star makes good and goes on to a fantastic career. Perhaps that will be the story of Greg Barrowman, a young singer encouraged to study his craft and polish his talent at the Glasgow Academy of Theatre Arts. As the Glasgow Evening Times points out, the understudy and the star are cousins.

Hmmm. Nepotism, you might be thinking. True, lots of talented young singers might wish their Cousin John had as much clout in the entertainment industry, but Greg has just been given a rare opportunity--now he has to make the most of it. (As well, if John didn't have the flu, this story about the older cousin mentoring the younger wouldn't have made the media.)

What strikes me most about today's article isn't that the understudy is related to the star, but that the star took an interest in a young talent and encouraged him to get to the point where he could be an understudy. And that, to me, is the moral of this story.

We often meet or know someone who is talented but may lack the encouragement to work toward a goal. I see it with some of my students, who shine in one area but don't know what to do with their skill or talent or how to network.

I once was one of those students who, in grad school, was given the opportunity to write a chapter in a textbook and was introduced to professional writers. I then was given the opportunity to co-author a book long before I wrote my own texts or branched into other areas of writing. I was too shy to interview someone until I was coached through the process a few times. I developed the confidence to introduce myself only because I once stood beside someone who showed me how to say hello politely and professionally.

My mama also taught me to be thankful for the opportunities I was given, but then to make sure I remembered how other people helped me when it was my turn to reach out a helping hand.

Now it's my time to mentor someone else--a student, a family member, a talented stranger. Whether I encourage with applause or a friendly comment after a performance, suggest a possible place to publish or write a positive review, or mention a name to someone looking for "fresh blood" to hire, it's my time to help the next generation to move forward.

We all can do that, even if we don't have high-level professional contacts. We can recognize that spark within a child and nurture that child's interest and potential. It's important that our families--biological or extended--are encouraged to try something new or potentially life changing.

I expect teachers or career counselors, for example, to mentor. I'm encouraged when those much more famous (and with higher socioeconomic status) do so. Would Greg Barrowman have his picture in the Glasgow Evening Times if he weren't standing next to his cousin? Maybe not yet. Would he be guest starring in a highly publicized panto playing in a huge venue? Probably not yet.

Looks like your mama brought you up right, too, John.