Critic’s Notebook: Best picture nominees use buildings and spaces as symbols

Rarely has a film been as celebrated or dissected for its treatment of architectural themes than Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” I wrote my own piece about the feverish, high-flying psychological thriller not long after it arrived in theaters last summer, and if I wasn’t entirely positive — the picture’s backdrops are alternately inspired and dipped in cliché — my doubts did little to change the fact that the movie puts architecture front and center like few Hollywood products in recent memory. One of the key characters is called Eames, for heaven’s sake. But as the year wore on, the tight grip “Inception” seemed to hold on the title of 2010’s Architecture Movie began to loosen. Quite a few of the films likely to pile up awards Sunday night are deeply interested in architectural symbolism, featuring buildings, rooms or spaces that serve in a fundamental way as proving grounds for their main characters.

Of the best picture nominees, three in particular stand out. In Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech,” the charmingly decrepit room where Colin Firth’s Prince Albert, soon to be King George VI, works with an Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) holds beneath its vaulted ceiling every last bit of the movie’s symbolic content. (The production design is by Eve Stewart, with art direction by Netty Chapman.) Hooper’s central and rather quixotic aim is to humanize and even democratize the British monarchy, and if he succeeds it is entirely thanks to the goings on in that unexalted lower-level office, with its peeling paint, worn (but handsome!) carpets and glorious light, as if it occupied some forgotten corner of a Victorian train station.

Let them try classical stuttering remedies like the Demosthenes cure, with its mouthful of stones, up at the palace. Down at Logue’s place, where Lionel gets to call the Prince “Bertie,” the design of the room is a stand-in for egalitarianism and, oddly enough, for meritocracy — even if the only man the King-to-be has to beat out to earn the throne is his ne’er-do-well older brother.

In “Winter’s Bone,” meanwhile, the small house, crammed with the accumulated stuff of generations, where Jennifer Lawrence’s 17-year-old character Ree Dolly is raising her younger siblings exerts a pull that is sometimes a little tough to understand – at least in architectural rather than familial or financial terms. Even Mark White’s remarkable production design isn’t quite enough to explain it. Still, in a movie about authenticity, the house is a starkly effective symbol of a connection to place so fundamental it is essentially tribal.


Finally there’s the bike-storage room in “The Social Network.” A gateway to the exclusive Porcellian Club, it’s the space where Mark Zuckerberg is called for an informal meeting with the Winklevoss twins, who won’t let him enter any further than this glorified staircase landing. In a movie that paints Zuckerberg as entirely driven by thinking of himself as a spurned, disrespected outsider (who happens to go to Harvard, but no matter), that leftover room is the snub made architectural, a wood-paneled chip on the shoulder.

On top of those examples, there’s the narrow, remote canyon in Utah where Aron Ralston (James Franco) has his right arm pinned by an 800-pound boulder in “127 Hours.” If that space is obviously not architectural in a literal sense, the movie sees it as an open-air temple where Ralston’s faith and strength are stretched thin. If you toss in the L.A. houses (in Echo Park and Venice) inhabited by the characters in Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right,” that means more than half of this year’s 10 best picture nominees qualify as unusually reliant on spaces where architecture and psychology are tough, if not impossible, to separate.

About halfway through “Black Swan,” I thought it too might qualify for this list, particularly for the way it begins to turn its cement-block rehearsal room into a sort of indoor prison exercise yard — complete with toe shoes, floor-to-ceiling mirrors and a piano — for Natalie Portman’s Nina. But then Darren Aronofsky decided he was Lars Von Trier remaking “Mommie Dearest,” and architecture quickly lost out to general hysteria.