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TIFF’s Day 2: Will ‘The King’ Need an Acceptance Speech?

A historical drama stakes its claim on Oscar, and TIFF plays favorites for Darren Aronofsky

It came out of Telluride as a bona-fide awards contender, and “The King’s Speech” certainly didn’t hurt its standing with its Friday night gala in Toronto.

Not only did the film play to a rousing ovation at Roy Thomson Hall, but a climactic scene near the end was greeted with applause as well – testament to just how well director Tom Hooper has refashioned a straightforward, potentially clichéd story into something quirkier, funnier and more powerful than you might expect from what is essentially old-fashioned moviemaking.

Tom Hopper and Colin Firth and Geoffrey RushOn star Colin Firth’s 50th birthday, Hooper lauded his star for “an indestructible core of niceness,” which he told the audience Firth shares with England’s King George VI, the character he plays in the film. Geoffrey Rush costars as the unorthodox speech therapist who helped the new king overcome a stammer and command the nation on the eve of World War II.

Hooper also told the story of how screenwriter David Seidler hit upon the story decades ago, and asked the Royal Family for permission to write a film set in the stormy days when King George V died and the new king, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne in order to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. The Queen Mother (played in the film by Helena Bonham Carter) requested that it not be made during her lifetime, as the memories were still too painful.

“David said yes,” said Hooper. “But he didn’t realize that the Queen Mother was going to live to be 186.”

(In fact, she died in 2002, at the age of 101, whereupon Seidler got to work.)

The film may play a bit long in spots, and it’s not a daring or experimental work like others at the festival – but in many ways it embodies the kind of exemplary filmmaking that once would have instantly made it a top Oscar contender and even now make it a formidable Best Picture candidate. It is, for starters, light on its feet and surprisingly funny, with enough stylistic quirks – characters usually occupy the outer edges of the frame, not the center – to make it solid but not stolid. 

And while Rush will likely be a serious Supporting Actor contender, Firth is a near lock for a nomination and a good bet for more than that. At a party that followed the gala screening, the actor talked to theWrap about the film’s climactic scene, in which the new king delivers an address to the nation at the start of World War II.

The scene watches the king and his therapist (speech and otherwise) as George makes it through a crucial moment in his reign without stammering, and it includes nearly all of the speech that George VI actually delivered.

“It’s slightly edited, but it was taken directly from his speech,” said Firth. “And recordings exist of that speech, so I was able to listen to it over and over. I didn’t try to imitate his voice, but I did get some of the pauses right.”

Todd McCarthy also weighed in on “The King’s Speech” and called it “entirely engaging,” with a nod to the kind of box office watching he used to do at Variety: “As audience-friendly as it could be, the film will provide a crucial test of the Weinstein Company’s ability to maximize a title’s potential, as this is the sort of Anglophilic crowd pleaser that routinely made fistfuls for the old Miramax.”

(Photo of Hooper, Firth and Rush by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

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If the day ended with that triumphant gala, it began with another hotly-awaited screening: the first press & industry showing of Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” which caused something of a sensation in Venice (followed, naturally, by a bit of a backlash).

The screening highlighted TIFF’s new system of press passes, in which some passholders are labeled “Priority Press” and are given special treatment at certain screenings.

Priority passholders were admitted to the theater first, while regular passholders waited and watched from the theater lobby – an experience, tweeted Cinemablend’s Katey Rich, that was “like a movie critic red carpet. Michael Phillips! Manohla Dargis!”

Press who were deemed unworthy of regular passes but were given vouchers, meanwhile, waited on the sidewalk outside until the screening was scheduled to start – at which point they were informed that there was no space for any of them, and that in fact not all of the regular passholders had been admitted either.

Which begs the question: no offense to Davis Guggenheim, but why was his documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’” booked into a 555-seat screen in the Scotiabank multiplex, when “Black Swan” had to make do with a 392-seater?

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Among those who did get into “Black Swan,” reviews were for the most part wildly positive. The aforementioned Katey Rich, for instance, called it “audaciously weird and scary and go-nuts psychotic,” all of which she intended as compliments. (CinemaBlend) Ben Kenigsberg labeled it “an amalgam of ‘The Red Shoes’ and ‘Repulsion,’ with a dash of ‘Showgirls’ thrown in,” and said “this aggressive, entertaining psychodrama is already one of the fest’s biggest argument-starters.” (Time Out Chicago)

And Jeff Wells, in a review headlined “Effing Brilliant,” immediately put the film into his “Best of 2010 club,” said it was easily Aronofsky’s best work, and says it’s cinched a Best Picture nomination and a Best Actress nod for Natalie Portman. “Done, settled, no arguments.” He even says (admitting that this speculation is premature) that Portman might well win the Best Actress Oscar over Annette Bening from “The Kids Are All Right,” a proposition that drew at least one heated demurral at a table full of Oscar bloggers at Friday night’s Weinstein party. Entertainment Weekly’s Dave Karger remains firmly in the Bening camp (Hollywood Elsewhere).

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