For decades, British cinema has laboured under the delusion that it needs gangsters. Britain does not, on the whole, bear much resemblance to Colombia, Moscow or New York’s Little Italy, but try telling that to its film industry, which continues to trot out mediocre movies about East End families, full of bad men in good suits. Without them, Ray Winstone would hardly have an imdb page and Guy Ritchie would still be making rock videos. Winstone’s latest movie, “London Boulevard”, came out before Christmas and duly collected some awful reviews, despite being co-produced by a very shrewd former film critic, Quentin Curtis.
If a British film of the past 30 years wasn’t about gangsters, it was probably a middle-class romcom starring Hugh Grant, an upper-class period piece starring Keira Knightley, a nostalgic animation by Nick Park, or a Tudor head-chopper featuring several buff young Americans. Now, at last, British cinema has hit on a new genre, and a good one. In place of gangsters, we have 20th-century royals.
For the three filmgoers and a dog who like British gangster movies, there is no need to panic. “The King’s Speech” is a film about a famous West End family that features a fading patriarch, a pair of brothers at war with each other and some very sharp tailoring. It’s “The Godfather” with less blood and more tweed.
This family is wildly unusual, but believable, because in Britain, along with all our tedious toffs and corny eastenders, we have one family that is in a continually interesting predicament: central yet powerless, forever seen but seldom heard, a blank canvas for gifted actors and writers. You wouldn’t cast Hugh Grant as a prince (too flip, too tanned), but Colin Firth is a man born to be king—pasty, likeable, diffident and seething underneath. Around him is enough talent to fill a palace: Michael Gambon, Claire Bloom, Timothy Spall, Derek Jacobi, Eve Best, and that fearless little girl from “Outnumbered”. The film is worth seeing just for Adrian Scarborough’s two-minute turn as a deliciously starchy BBC announcer.
George VI was king for only 16 years and his stammer hardly changed the course of history, but the screenwriter David Seidler whips a shaggy-dog story into a subtle bromance, with Firth meeting his match in Geoffrey Rush. The result has enough charm and wit to be an international hit and an Oscar contender. “The Queen”, with Helen Mirren, similarly spun a two-hour drama out of a brief moment in the life of George VI’s daughter, Elizabeth II—the fevered days after the death of Princess Diana. The key is to place the crown in conflict with a commoner, whether it’s a speech therapist or a prime minister. The commoner represents modern life, rudely bursting into the dusty, clenched world of the court.
Next comes a film about Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, “W.E.”, directed by Madonna (hmm) and starring Andrea Riseborough (hooray). Following the success of “The King’s Speech”, we can expect plenty more along the same lines. There will be tweed. And, with a bit of luck, fewer British gangster movies.
~ TIM DE LISLE