The Miserable Ugliness of The King's Speech
By Jason Haggstrom, December 31, 2012
Oh, lord. Here we go again. Somebody, please stop the ride. I think I'm going to throw up.
If you've spent anytime in a movie theatre over the last few months, you've no doubt been subjected to the trailer for the latest film adaptation of Les Misérables. Repeatedly. And although Anne Hathaway's vocal performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" that plays over the teaser is truly breathtaking (without a doubt the greatest "Holy shit!" moment I had at the movies this year), the images themselves are a canted, shaky, fish-eyed mess. The biggest question for me during this year's run of awards-contending films has not been "When will I find the time for all these movies?," but "Can I really stomach another Tom Hooper film, even if it is guaranteed to contain that performance?" I've never been to France, but if Hooper's vision of Les Misérables is to be believed, it's a place where visitors should always be on the lookout for the nearest handrail in order to avoid losing both their balance and their lunch.
David Edelstein was the first major critic to lay into the latest rendition of Les Mis when he wrote that "the tasteless bombardment that is Les Misérables would, under most circumstances, send audiences screaming from the theater." Manohla Dargis also took Hooper to task when she wrote that his "inability to leave any lily ungilded — to direct a scene without tilting or hurtling or throwing the camera around — is bludgeoning and deadly." And Michael Phillips gave an unflattering description of how Hooper's camera "bobs and weaves like a drunk, frantically" before exclaiming that he "wanted somebody to just nail the damn camera to the ground." Thank you very much, fine film critics. Thank you for saving me ten bucks and three hours of my life.
Thank you for saving me from Tom Hooper.
After suffering through his last film, the flimsy, over-directed, headache-inducing The King's Speech—wherein the Duke of York must overcome wide-angle lenses, nonsensical framings, and a speech impediment on his way to becoming the new King of England—I placed Hooper right atop my director shit list. The King's Speech is, without a doubt, the ugliest film that I have ever seen. No, I'm not referring to the dingy interiors of Lionel Logue's home, the London fog, or anything about the dankness brought on by faux-natural lighting. I'm referring to the fever-dream direction of Tom Hooper, and his constant attempts to upstage the cast with his ever-oppressive camera.
Too thin a story to be interesting in feature-length form and directed with such inconsistency as to be maddening, The King's Speech is a film without flow or rhythm. It is a film littered with directorial distractions that do nothing to enhance the story, but only add to the volume while distorting the overall sound. Under the guidance of Hooper, the movie stammers and lurches as much as its stuttering protagonist.
For my money, the single ugliest shot in the entire film is this one—which makes about as much sense out of context as it does within it—where Colin Firth appears to be sliding down a hill on a chair:
Oddly composed, poorly framed, and canted just enough to make you lean right out of your seat, this shot is a collection of distractions. And it isn't just the slight tilt in the camera setup that robs the shot of balance (and distracts us from whatever is actually being said by the actors). It's also in how the character of Bertie is positioned on the left side of the frame while also looking off the left edge. The effect is unsettling, disturbing even. And it's by design. But before we get to that, and why this particular decision makes my head hurt, we must first do a quick overview of eyeline match to better understand why it is the eyes, above all else, that make this shot so disturbingly wrong.
Eyeline matching is a fundamental ingredient of continuity editing wherein an on-screen character looks in a specific direction before the film cuts (or pans, etc.) to what was being looked at. It's a method that defines spacial relationships between people and objects, and that helps guide the viewer's eyes to various parts of the screen. Eyeline matching is utilized extensively in every movie we watch. When eyeline match is handled poorly, the effect is so jarring that the viewer's suspension of disbelief is broken while they are forced to consciously puzzle together the various shots of the given scene to make sense of where people are, what they are looking at, whom they are talking to, and what is even happening. There are films—art films—that intentionally break conventions of eyeline match (or other conventions), but they are rare and their intent is to create a mode of storytelling that is distinctly different from everything that is typical in filmmaking (The King's Speech is not such a film).
Like most films, The King's Speech does utilize eyeline matching, albeit very rarely. One example occurs early on in a scene of Bertie's home life. He joins his wife Elizabeth and their two daughters and, hesitantly, begins to tell a story. As we'd expect, he stutters through the telling. But his daughters remain unfazed. He is their father, this is his affect, and they remain ignorant to the political ramifications that his impediment brings to him or to his family. To visualize this moment, the four are established as occupying the same space with this group shot:
As Bertie tells his tale, Hooper cuts between shots of Bertie speaking and the reactions of the other three as they listen. The shots are static and the approach to their framing is conventional. We always know who is listening to whom and each cut fulfills our subconscious expectations of where we should look next. Shots of the daughters, who are sitting on the floor, feature a downward tilt to imply that they are from the seated vantage point of Bertie and Elizabeth. Each of the three ladies is positioned on the left of the frame while their eyes glance off-screen to the right. When the cuts to Bertie occur he appears on the right and completes the visual idea of who the girls are looking at (and that he is returning their look).
The design of how eyeline matching conveys these relationships across a cut is evident in the shots above where it is abundantly clear that each of the three ladies are looking at Bertie. And, importantly, although each cut between one of the girls and Bertie results in our eyes shifting from the left region of the screen to the right, the physiological sensation is muted because the eyelines of the characters predicted the movement of our own eyes. But in The King's Speech such clarity is a rarity.
For the majority of this film, Hooper's approach to staging dialog scenes is to buck conventions in eyeline matching entirely. In all but a few instances, eyeline match is treated like an enemy. Here, Bertie is positioned on the left side of the frame:
His eyeline draws us towards the left edge of the frame, in the direction of whomever he is talking to. That would, of course, be Lionel, the man helping him with his speech impediment. But when we cut to Lionel he appears on the right in direct opposition to where the framing and eyeline told us to look for him.
With Bertie on the left and looking off that edge of the frame, and Lionel on the right looking off the right, the direction employed in the scene is telling us that they are not actually looking at each other. So, after the cut from the shot of Bertie, the viewer's eye finds itself stranded in the dead space where the character had just been. That is, the viewer's attention immediately after the cut is to this dead space in the shot of Lionel:
The viewer must then consciously choose to redirect their eyes to a new location of the screen, which would be here:
And since the viewer's eye is now focused on the right side of the screen, and there is no indication that the left side is of any importance, the cut back to Bertie once again leaves the viewer's eye stranded in the dead space of the screen:
Because of Hooper's decisions in framing and the direction of his characters' eyelines, the viewer's eye is constantly lagging behind the action. With each cut, we must consciously choose to focus our attention on new objects in the frame. As the scene plays out, you might actually find yourself trying to anticipate the cuts so that your eyes will be ready to fulfill their compulsion to jump across the frame and find the speaking face. In any case, the sensation is a distracting one that wreaks havoc on our suspension of disbelief and constantly reminds us of our own participation in viewing the film. It's an infuriating experience that feels like watching a two-hour game of ping-pong at close range with your head wedged in a vice. At several points during many of the film's lengthy conversations (five to ten minutes straight of eyeline mis-match madness), I found that I'd subconsciously turned away from the screen and fixed my eyes on my legs or on the floor to avoid the irritation of watching the scene any longer. My reward for enduring the film in its entirety was an enormous headache.
In his commentary track on the DVD, Hooper explains the thinking behind these illogical setups:
The other thing you'll notice a lot is how much I used short-siding. The scene when the actors look at each other out of the short side of the frame rather than long side which is the anti-classical way of framing [...] By short-siding the actors there is a sense of awkwardness in that style of shooting which I intended to resolve by the end of the picture when Colin and Geoffrey's characters are framed classically and you achieve a kind of classical equilibrium of mid to long lenses for the close-ups and classical framing where they are looking at each other out of the long side of the frame.
Hooper's explanation reveals a distrust of the ability of his actors to convey the ticks of an emerging relationship on their own. His direction doesn't enhance the performances, it overpowers them. And, oddly enough, Hooper doesn't even abide by his own logic. In the middle of the scene I've highlighted, Hooper suddenly reverts to the classical mode and has the characters face each other across shots:
Why does he do this? Because Lionel hands Bertie a book and if Hooper had continued to use the antithetical approach of "short-siding," the handoff wouldn't have made visual sense. Of course it doesn't make sense for two talking heads either, but Hooper has made his choice. But even more bizarre is that this choice extends beyond the Bertie and Lionel relationship. In fact, Hooper employs short-siding throughout the entire film, breaking down any explanation he could ever offer. Here, Hooper employs short-siding when Elizabeth meets Lionel:
And he also hits us with it when Lionel auditions for a play:
What do those scene have to do with Bertie and Lionel's emerging relationship? Nothing, of course.
In addition to the horrific, distracting choice to employ eyeline mis-match, Hooper insists upon bizarre choices in framing that reveal him to be more interested in the cleverness of his environs than the performances of his principals. Here, Hooper cuts in order to show off the patina of the wall:
It's one of a selection of shots that do nothing to help convey the conversation at hand. The cuts between the close-ups (of which there are a variety) and longer shots such as this are nothing more than a hodgepodge of visual information that add to the complexity of the scene while never contributing to our comprehension of it. Among these seemingly random shots we even find cuts to shots that are slightly repositioned versions of shots that we are familiar with. Here, Hooper gives us shots from two slightly different setups across a scant seven seconds of runtime:
To what end? How does complicating scenes with such an overwhelming variety of shots change the way we understand the story, the situation, or the characters? It doesn't. These directorial choices don't enhance the storytelling so much as they draw attention to the man behind the camera as he screams, "Look at me, I'm directing!"
Hooper explained his approach in an interview where he said,
I think the key thing I wanted to think about was to find a visual analogue for what stammering is like. Stammering is about silence, and nothingness and absence, so I wanted to find a visual way of putting Colin's face in relation to absence and nothingness. So I thought about framing his face in close-ups in relation to negative space, to big areas of nothing. So I framed him against these big empty walls, like the big blasted wall in the consulting room, and the field of wallpaper in Logue's room.
The arrogance on Hooper's part is astounding. Do we really need such filmic devices when we have Colin Firth stuttering right there on screen? Of course not. Hooper's overbearing direction isn't direction at all but an alpha dog's challenge to all who enter his frame.
Hooper even extends his heavy hand to things as narratively slight as common establishing shots, like this one:
Why does it exist? Why do we need that shot to setup this one:
And why does Hooper's London appear so monstrous in this establishing shot?
The London of this film seems more at home to Jack the Ripper than a Duke with a simple speech impediment.
As best as I can determine, Tom Hooper's incessant use of wide-angle distortion comes from an obsession with Stanley Kubrick. We see the influence of Kubrick in Hooper's use of center-framed positioning (when he isn't short-siding), in his use of the steadicam to follow or lead his subjects, and in his insistance on sticking with wide-angle lenses for the majority of the film. These are all hallmarks of Kubrick's work. In fact, Hooper has confirmed his infatuation with Kubrick in not only his commentary on the DVD of the film, but in numerous interviews he gave after The King's Speech was released. Again and again, Hooper extolls his love of the the 18mm, calling it his "favorite lens" before noting that it was also purportedly Kubrick's favorite as well. But swiping a few ideas from Kubrick's toolbox hardly makes one Kubrick. Because of Hooper's love affair with the 18mm, we are constantly assaulted with abstract establishing shots such as the one from Les Misérables at the top of this post (pop it up), or like these from The King's Speech:
Of these selections, only the last example has any appropriate visual context in the film—it's the shot that establishes the scene where Bertie nervously delivers his speech to conclude the movie. Otherwise, the shots with their heavily distorted lines and bodies exist as the ugly fingerprint-blemish of the film's overbearing director. But, of course, Hooper likes to mix it up a bit. So here is a non-distorted establishing shot for good measure (Why now? Only Tom Hooper knows.):
And, because he just can't be stopped, Hooper also finds the occasion to apply his extreme, wide-angled visions to dialog scenes as well. Here, Bertie and Elizabeth walk down a surrealistic hallway,
and here they take what appears to be psychedelic "trip" by car:
Why do these shots seem like something out of Alice in Wonderland? What do these directorial decisions contribute to the storytelling? There's nothing in the story to distinguish between scenes where Hooper goes abstract and where he does not. And, whether Hooper intended it or not (doubtful), the constant use of wide-angle lenses give the film the brooding sensation of creepiness that contributes to the ever-changing tone of the picture.
I get it: Tom Hooper loves Stanley Kubrick. But he doesn't seem to realize that Kubrick's films were both dreamlike and creepy, and that his use of wide-angle lenses for abstraction were a major contributor to that tone. In The King's Speech, the abstractions that are created with wide-angle lenses can only be seen to be either arbitrary or very poorly calculated.
If this were a just world, every copy of The King's Speech would come with a bottle of aspirin. Tom Hooper's overbearing direction has turned a middle-of-the-road, decidedly thin story into an ugly, headache-inducing nightmare of a film. My only reasons for even watching the blasted thing were its improbable wins at the Academy Awards (they've been wrong before). And if Tom Hooper's latest film, Les Misérables, takes home Best Picture or Best Director at the upcoming Oscars, I'll know better this time than to seek it out. Directed by Tom Hooper? No thanks. The last thing I need tonight is a headache.