How Beethoven Saved the King’s Speech and Almost Ruined the Movie
I cried during “The King’s Speech.” Before you start laughing and pointing fingers at me, let me explain: The onscreen action had nothing to do with my temporary lapse of emotional composure. As a lifelong stutterer, I can relate to King George VI’s plight — though not enough to reduce me to tears. It was that damn Ludwig van Beethoven. He gets me every time!
During George’s climactic speech at Buckingham Palace after the commencement of the country’s involvement in World War II, the soundtrack blared the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major. I had a hard time focusing on what Colin Firth, as George VI, was saying, thanks to Beethoven’s symphonic melodrama. His stutter wasn’t cured, he still had halting moments (as his kid, the future Queen Elizabeth II, was quick to point out), but what he said and the way in which he said it was enough to soothe the panicked nation — and presumably will win Colin Firth the Best Actor Oscar when the Academy Awards are handed out on February 27.
But what’s with the Beethoven bit? Though he’s no Mozart, maybe not even a Tchaikovsky, when it comes to his film presence, if Beethoven were alive today, he’d probably give Danny Elfman a major run for his movie-scoring gigs — that’s how overused his work is in cinema. It’s popped up in everything from the highbrow (“Dead Poets Society,” “Hilary and Jackie,” “Traffic”) to the low (“Along Came Polly,” “Daddy Day Care,” “George of the Jungle”) to “Fantasia,” “Star Trek: Insurrection” and “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.”
As I listened to Symphony No. 7 with the king’s speech practically relegated to background noise, for the first time, a movie that had impressed me as a master class of great acting without truly moving me, finally did. It wasn’t until the closing credits that I realized I had been manipulated. Totally.
Just in case I didn’t get the great historical importance of the moment, Beethoven was meant to underscore it. Even the hand movements of Geoffrey Rush, as George VI’s speech therapist Lionel Logue, seemed to be conducting some imaginary orchestra as much as guiding George. Were the royal subjects reacting to the king’s speech or to Beethoven? For me, definitely the latter. That’s so Hollywood (by way of Britain). Now I’m secretly rooting for “Black Swan” in the Best Picture Oscar race.
Director Tom Hooper isn’t the first one to pull the Symphony No. 7 card. That particular Beethoven opus has popped up in various films over the years, including 2009′s “Knowing.” Remember that film? It’s one of those Nicolas Cage movies that makes tens of millions of dollars at the box-office yet nobody remembers them a few months later. Like “The King’s Speech,” “Knowing” used Symphony No. 7 for its climactic scene, a mass exodus from an apocalyptic Boston.
British historical costume dramas, particularly ones featuring monarchs, have traditionally found favor with the Academy, which might be why “The King’s Speech” received 12 Oscar nominations this morning (the year’s top haul). I’m not sure if Tom Hooper has ever seen “Knowing.” Maybe he was inspired by the 1982 film “Frances” or “Mr. Holland’s Opus” (1995), both of which also used the second movement of Symphony No. 7. Perhaps he just loves that particular Beethoven composition, and he didn’t have enough faith in Alexandre Desplat’s score to let it carry his film’s most important scene.
Whatever his reason, if you are going to use Beethoven to tug at the heartstrings of moviegoers, following in the immediate footsteps of a Nicolas Cage popcorn flick should be the road not travelled. But oh well, it’s probably better than yet another Fifth of Beethoven.
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