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Film: Out of the Past

by Ross Douthat

A review of True Grit

They arrive all at once, the year’s serious movies, in a Christmas rush that gluts theaters and dazes critics. After so many fine performances, so many sterling scripts, and so much directorial excellence, most reviewers limp into the new year a little overwhelmed, pining for the lowbrow longueurs of August and September, when the only question was how much snark to hurl at The Expendables or Piranha 3D.

Happily, this magazine’s fortnightly publishing schedule supplies a little more time to recover and reflect. But I still feel obliged to take December’s better films two at a time, lest I find myself still reviewing them in March.

We’ll start, then, with the season’s two historical dramas — one that’s somewhat worse than its showiest performance, and another that’s somewhat better. The one that’s worse is The King’s Speech, a competent but unsurprising period piece that’s redeemed from middlingness by Colin Firth’s superb turn as Albert Frederick Arthur George of Windsor, a.k.a. the Duke of York, a.k.a. “Bertie” — or, as his elder brother cruelly calls him, “b-b-b-b-Bertie.”

The duke, you see, has a terrible stammer, which renders him unable to deliver gracious speeches, preside at great occasions, and otherwise perform the various ceremonial duties required of a British royal. This is a particular problem for Bertie because the time is the 1930s, and his elder brother is the reckless and Nazi-sympathizing Edward VIII (an appropriately unstable-seeming Guy Pearce), whose passion for a Baltimore divorcee eventually forces him to offload the crown to his stuttering younger sibling. With war clouds gathering and Britain in need, the soon-to-be George VI must find someone to solve his speech impediment. And that someone turns out to be a commoner — and worse, an Australian! — named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose unorthodox methods make him part personal trainer, part psychiatrist, and a complete shock to the system for a repressed aristocrat like Bertie.

It goes without saying that the shock is salutary, that Bertie and Lionel form an unexpected friendship, and that when the crisis arrives, the kingdom rallies, gratefully, around its somewhat less tongue-tied king. The King’s Speech is mainly well-cooked comfort food for Anglophiles: It has plummy accents, faultless sets and costumes, a raft of master thespians — Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi — in supporting parts, and an entirely unobjectionable political message (down with Hitler and snobbery, but God save the king!).

Only Firth finds something more in the material. Resisting the temptation to make Bertie and his stammer even remotely charming, he strangles on his words rather than just stumbling over them, playing the duke-turned-king as a man for whom the mind-body connection has become the most awful sort of prison. We’ve seen repressed aristocrats in a hundred movies and Masterpiece Theatre serials. But this is the rare performance that finds the tortured humanity in the cliché.

It helps that Firth is more comprehensible, even at his most strangled, than Jeff Bridges’s Rooster Cogburn in Joel and Ethan Coen’s take on the Charles Portis western True Grit. Portis’s novel was originally adapted for the screen in 1969, with John Wayne playing Cogburn, the drunken, eye-patched, and trigger-happy lawman hired by a doughty 14-year-old, Mattie Ross (Kim Darby in the original, a newcomer named Hailee Steinfeld in the Coens’ movie), to bring her father’s killer to justice along the post–Civil War frontier. The new version proves that casting a more technically proficient actor doesn’t always produce a better performance. Even though Wayne mainly put a dissolute, cantankerous twist on his usual screen persona, his Cogburn was a more compelling figure than Bridges’s hammy, growling, “look, Ma, I’m acting” interpretation of the character.

The movie around Bridges, though, is excellent. Whether it was strictly necessary I’m not sure: The Coens made much of how they intended to draw more deeply from Portis’s novel, but the original movie was already reasonably faithful to the book, and there are times when the new Grit feels more like a shot-by-shot remake than a complete reimagining. (The biggest change to the narrative is a coda that frames the story from a quarter century later, which feels like a letdown and a mistake.)

But there are improvements as well, mostly in the emphases and shadings. Roger Deakins’s cinematography is more artful than anything in the 1969 version, the score is more haunting, and there’s perhaps a bit more of Portis’s baroque and fascinating dialogue. Matt Damon makes a better (and funnier) LaBoeuf, the vain Texas Ranger who joins up with Mattie and Rooster, than Glen Campbell did in the original. As Mattie, Steinfeld isn’t better than Darby, but she’s different in interesting ways: She’s actually 14, where Darby was 22, which may be why she feels free to underplay Mattie’s girlishness, and emphasize her Calvinist intensity, her forcefulness and intelligence, and (of course) her grit.

This emphasis fits the movie’s overall tone, which is Coen to the core: ruminative, prolix, existential, and fascinated by the way that faithful, moral, and determined individuals wrestle with the apparently random violence and stupidity of the universe. (Mattie and Marge Gunderson from Fargo would make an interesting team.) The original True Grit was more of a yarn; this one is more of a sermon. I’m glad we have them both.

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