After a long, dry spell of movies the Cap’n and I had no desire to see in the theatre (interrupted only by the seventh “Harry Potter” film), we splurged the last couple of weeks and shlepped to the cinema not once, but twice.
Last week saw us at the Rav Chen in Talpiot for “Black Swan.” The review in the Jerusalem Post made it look intriguing, artful, if a little twisted. After seeing it, I think that was very generous. Yes, the dancing (done by Natalie Portman herself) was very good, and the story (in which she, as Nina the prima ballerina, is required to dance both the black swan and the white swan parts in a new production) potentially interesting. But this is not an ordinary woman being asked to stretch herself to dance a challenging part; it’s a neurotic, lonely, repressed dancer thrust suddenly into the limelight (in a world that is exceedingly pressurized and competitive already) being asked to do the nearly-impossible. None of the enticements (sex, drugs) and pressures (from her mother and the competition from other dancers) to perform the part successfully work, and she very nearly muffs it. The catalyst that gets her over the top and enables her to perform both innocently and seductively is shocking and bizarre, and is emblematic of the confusion throughout the film between Nina’s bizarre fantasies and the bleak reality that is her life in reality. When I studied short fiction writing years ago, we discussed in each story what happens to the main character. What does she learn? How does he change? At the end of “Black Swan,” I’m not sure what Nina has learned, or whether she’s any better off for what has happened to her. There is nothing to suggest that the demons that haunt her can be vanquished, and in fact, the viewer has reason to believe that her career and neuroses may well follow those of the previous principal ballerina’s. I can’t remember leaving a movie theatre feeling as physically ill as after seeing this movie. I can take a good amount of violence and psychological trauma from the movies, but I had to put down the window to breathe the fresh air (and exhaust) to calm my nerves on the drive home.
(I should note that the Cap’n, who has the toasties for Natalie Portman, commented that the movie was “very well done.” He was not nearly as grossed out as I was, perhaps because he’s not a woman and has never experienced the ridiculous pressure to please others, be perfect, admired, the best, and beautiful all at the same time.)
A few nights of “Deep Space 9” and “The Tudors” helped slowly to draw out the poison in my soul. But the true palate-cleanser came Sunday night when we attended “The King’s Speech.” The Smadar theatre, located in the charming, gentrified Jerusalem neighborhood of Emek Refaim (aka the German Colony) is a small art-film house cum restaurant and bar. It’s clearly an intellectual crowd, and the films shown there are the sleepier, more thoughtful, usually foreign films that make it to this part of the world. “The King’s Speech” is one of the few English films that are shown there. (They also screen French, Spanish, Danish, and others, with Hebrew subtitles.) When I read about “The King’s Speech” on a blog, and watched the trailer online, I knew this was the tonic I would need after last week’s freak-out. The combination of Colin Firth (whom I like) and Geoffrey Rush (whom I love) seemed too good to be true. Even Helena Bonham Carter, whom I have grown tired of in all of Tim Burton’s films of the past few years, looked excellent. For those unfamiliar with the story, Bertie, the Duke of York (and father of the current Queen) has a stammer which makes public speaking nearly impossible. As a prince, he is expected to make the occasional speech, but as it becomes increasingly clear that his older brother, David (Edward VIII), is likely to abdicate to marry two-time American divorcée, Wallis Simpson, the fact that he is about to be thrust onto the throne, into a war, and in front of microphones with ever-increasing frequency, makes public speaking a necessity. Firth plays Bertie, who (with the encouragement of his wife, Elizabeth, played by Bonham Carter) seeks help from speech therapist Lionel Logue (Rush). Their relationship develops slowly, in fits and starts, as Bertie’s father’s health declines (George V, played with bombast by Michael Gambon) and his relationship with his brother David (ingeniously-cast Guy Pearce) deteriorates. Helena Bonham Carter’s performance was called “tart, in Merchant-Ivory fashion” in the review in the Post, but I thought it was more nuanced than that. She was formal and clipped in her public role, but a warm and compassionate wife—as one would expect a royal figure to be. The screenplay has an excellent balance of seriousness (Bertie’s humiliating first speech at Wembley Stadium, and his confession to Logue about some of the darker periods of his childhood) and humor, as when Bertie insists his stammer couldn’t be cured by any of the doctors in Harley Street. “They’re all idiots,” Logue responds, to which Bertie retorts, “They all have knighthoods.” “That makes it official,” says Logue. Or when Logue encourages Bertie to use every filthy word he’s ever heard (which he does without stammering). The music is also excellent, with an extremely powerful use of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
I realize, writing this, that there are similarities between these two movies. Both Nina and Bertie have to overcome difficult obstacles in order to perform their roles (as ballerina and king, le’havdil). It was much pleasanter, though, to see Bertie succeed with the love and support of his wife and the able help of Logue, than to watch Nina flounder helplessly with a domineering mother, a slick ballet director on the make, and no friends. And where we’re unsure whether Nina’s success will endure or fizzle after this one triumph, at least we know that Bertie is able to function capably in the future.