Against-all-odds, fact-based movies score at Telluride Film Festival

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TELLURIDE, Colo. — Truth can certainly be stranger than fiction. If you look toward the Telluride Film Festival, it might also be stronger.

While the rest of Hollywood
turns to far-fetched fantasies of flying superheroes, impossible
romances and talking toys, the filmmakers behind the standout movies at
the Colorado festival are finding that some of the year’s most powerful stories can be found in real-life events.

While that’s obviously the case with Telluride’s
esteemed documentaries, three of the most enthusiastically received
dramatic features at the just-concluded festival — the world premieres
“The King’s Speech,” “127 Hours” and “The First Grader” — are based on
the extraordinary accomplishments of actual people. A number of the
festival’s other prominent new features, including “The Way Back,” “Of
Gods and Men,” “Carlos” and “Incendies,” also have historical events
undergirding their foundation.

The narrative allure of such stories is easy. When
moviegoers see the words “Based on a true story” just as a film
commences, they might grant a movie prospective empathy — the audience
is more willing to welcome, both intellectually and emotionally, what
it is about to see. That connection was a powerful wave pushing last
year’s “The Blind Side.”

Yet any director or writer who strays too far from
the factual path can be condemned for fast-and-loose filmmaking. “A
Beautiful Mind” was nearly derailed when its makers sanded off several
rough patches in mathematician John Nash’s personal life, and “The Hurricane” was knocked out for its liberties with boxer Rubin Carter.

“I remember thinking after ‘3000 Degrees’ that I’ll never do another real-life story,” Danny Boyle, the director and co-writer of “127 Hours,” says of a proposed movie about a Massachusetts
firefighting tragedy that fell apart on the eve of production over
life-rights issues. “It’s just too complicated. You don’t have control
over the material.”

Yet when that true-life material is irresistible,
filmmakers can find a way to make a film that is both creatively
inventive and factually honest.

The people at the center of “The King’s Speech,”
“127 Hours” and “The First Grader” could barely be more disparate. The
first film, directed by Tom Hooper (“The Damned United”), focuses on King George VI,
the World War II monarch who struggled to overcome a crippling speech
impediment. The new movie from Boyle, who premiered “Slumdog
Millionaire” in Telluride two years ago, recounts the experience of Aron Ralston, who amputated his own hand and forearm when pinned by a falling boulder. And “The First Grader,” from director Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”), profiles an illiterate 84-year-old Kenyan
villager who, after the government promised free education for all,
hobbled into an elementary school and wouldn’t leave until he could
learn to read.

As unalike (and, outside of Ralston, as potentially
unfamiliar) as their stories might be, the characters share an
against-all-odds quest that ultimately unites the cheering spectator
with the journey.

“The main thing was that it was uplifting,” Chadwick
says of his interest in telling the story of “The First Grader’s”
Nganga Maruge, a tale that came to filmmakers’ attention in a Los
Angeles Times article. “You have to make something that is relevant
these days, and it was a really good story.”

Chadwick shot his film, which stars the African actor Oliver Litondo as Maruge and England’s Naomie Harris as his determined teacher, Jane Obinchu,
in a remote Kenyan village with no electricity or running water and
populated the cast with 200 local schoolchildren, most of whom had
never seen a movie or TV show. While Chadwick and screenwriter Ann Peacock (“A Lesson Before Dying”) made changes to the story (Obinchu in the
movie is younger than in real life, there’s a radio announcer adding
jokes and exposition), the movie endeavored to get geographic and
historical details as accurate as possible.

The scars that Maruge bears on his back as a result of torture under Britain’s
colonial rule are replicated in the film on Litondo’s body, and the
songs the young students sing throughout the movie are their own
creation. “The movie also celebrates the children, and the healing
power of children, no matter what terrible things have happened in your
life,” Chadwick says.

Boyle says that while it’s easy to look at Ralston’s
story as an unimaginable demonstration of superhumanism, he believes
that we are all capable of doing the same thing if the situation
demanded it. So at many turns throughout “127 Hours,” he and
screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) excised scenes that created barriers between Ralston ( James Franco)
and the audience, meanwhile adding sequences that connected the trapped
hiker to the rest of the world, crowd scenes and memories of an old
girlfriend designed to be a magnet helping pull him free. “It may not
be factual,” Boyle says of some of the added sequences, “but it’s
truthful.”

The film preserves verbatim some of what Ralston
says into his video camera during the ordeal, including a disorderly
farewell to his parents, because it gives “127 Hours” a verisimilitude
that polished scripting might lack. “It’s so slightly awkwardly written
— a proper dramatist would never write the speech that way,” Boyle
says. “But it felt very natural to leave it like that.”

As a young English child with a terrible stammer, David Seidler would listen to radio broadcasts of King George VI,
who also had an almost incapacitating speech impediment. The king’s
World War II addresses reminded Seidler that if the monarch could
overcome stuttering, so could he: The king was his elocutionary
inspiration.

Seidler grew up to become a screenwriter, writing
“Tucker: The Man and his Dream” and numerous television programs, but
he never forgot what he heard over the wireless so many decades
earlier. He eventually adapted the story of the king and his
relationship with his unconventional speech therapist, Lionel Logue, into a play, and the play has now become the movie “The King’s Speech.”

Even though the movie directed by Hooper is about the royal family and unfolds around Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, “The King’s Speech” follows common themes of friendship, perseverance and trust. Logue ( Geoffrey Rush)
was a talented language pathologist (the film was shaped by a trove of
his unpublished papers, records and diary entries), but his true gift
was companionship. Like any good shrink or comrade, Logue was able to
reveal and manage some of the things — an oppressive childhood, chiefly
— that twisted the king’s ( Colin Firth) tongue in knots.

“What I felt the film was really about was that he
was saved by friendship,” Hooper says. “Yes, it’s about a man with a
stammer. But we all face blocks to becoming our better selves.”

The film is stuffed with period detail — “I’m
obsessive about historical accuracy,” says Hooper, who also directed
the HBO miniseries “ John Adams.” One of the film’s
most memorable lines comes not from biography, but from something
Hooper’s father told the director. Educated in a heartless boarding
school, the filmmaker’s dad suffered confidence-killing treatment
similar to that faced by King George VI.

So when Hooper told his father he was stuck on one
scene, his father told him some of the best advice he ever heard: “You
don’t need to be afraid of the things you were afraid of when you were
5.” It’s Logue’s line to the king now, and it’s part of what makes “The
King’s Speech” feel so real.

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