Wednesday, March 2, 2011

To no one's surprise, The King's Speech swept the major categories at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards. Crafted with a faultless restraint, the emotionally compelling story about the battle of Prince Albert (later King George VI) to overcome a nervous stammer bagged Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Colin Firth), Best Director (Tom Hooper), and Original Screenplay (David Seidler). The only major category the film did not win was the one for which it was not nominated — Best Actress. As the Duchess of York, Helena Bonham Carter plays at best a supporting turn. The other major acting role is played by Geoffrey Rush who, as the maverick speech therapist practising in Harley Street, strikes up an unlikely friendship with his royal patient as progress is made to control and eventually overcome the stammering. Rush failed to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor but his loopy, eccentric ways brings out the best in Colin Firth who, apart from maintaining a convincing stammer, expertly captures the inner turmoil of a man whose royalty imposes a suffocating weight of expectancy and decorum on a natural and tumultuous rage.

That the The King's Speech was the runaway favourite to sweep the Oscars was a tribute to a charming feel-good period drama supported by some truly fine acting. But it also reflects the Academy's continued preference for emotionally resonant stories over other genres. Did not Slumdog Millionaire sweep the 2009 Academy Awards, trumping The Reader in a contest perceived by some critics to be between populism and serious art? Oscar history is littered with such instances.

In 1976, the conventional boxing feature Rocky won over Roman Polanski's Taxi Driver, a film which all but redefined urban noir. Much earlier, the feel-good mining-town tearjerker How Green Was My Valley overcame Citizen Kane, which shaped cinematography as we know it today. This year's nominations for Best Picture had some serious challengers. There was The Social Network, the hip and emotionally detached biopic of the founder of Facebook. And there was the fabulous Black Swan, an edgy psychological thriller about a retiring ballerina — performed with extraordinary intensity by Natalie Portman (Best Actress) — who is haunted by hallucination and who rages at her repression. Edgy and challenging works of art rarely trump feel-good films at the Oscars. 

The King's Speech was by no means an undeserving winner. It's just that the Oscars may have been unkind to other deserving nominees, something that is perhaps unavoidable in a competition of this kind. Almost certainly, time will be kind — in fact, much kinder — to them.

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