The King’s Speech (2010) dir. Tom Hooper
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter, Timothy Spall
By Alan Bacchus
There seems to be an endless number of Oscar-worthy stories to be produced from the Royal Family. This year’s awards fodder is the story of King George VI, the quiet king, the father of Queen Elizabeth II, who took over from the abdicated Edward VIII, and who famously had a stutter. As usual it’s a classy affair full of handsome performances, but Hooper manages to avoid the usual stodginess of this type of material with a distinct visual design and a deep affection and accessibility of his characters.
Hooper starts off in 1925 wherein then Duke of York, Albert (his real name), played by Colin Firth, is all sweaty palms in anticipation of a speech he’s required to make at Wembley Stadium. Due to his stammering, the speech is a disaster, an event which public humiliated him. Moving on to 1932, after numerous speech therapists Albert, or Bertie, as he was affectionately known, swears off all treatment. That is, until his devoted wife Elizabeth, aka, ‘the Queen Mother’ (Bonham-Carter), seeks out a renowned but ‘common’ Australian ‘speech defect’ therapist, Dr. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). A meeting is engineered, where the sly doctor manages to prove to the doubting-Thomas Bertie that his condition is psychological. With trust fully in place the pair embark on a decades long journey toward rehabilitation of body and soul.
Upon this routine narrative skeleton, that is, the close relationship of doctor and patient, Hooper hangs a rather far reaching and expansive story of not only tumultuous British Royal politics but the dramatic events of the 1930’s which led to WWII.
Rush and Firth make tremendous friends and adversaries. The initial stand off between doctor and patient goes deep through a number of fascinating levels. First there’s the obvious embarrassment of Albert who has to open his inadequacies to a total stranger; there’s also the socio-economic/class separation, which, at a glance, would seem petty and frivolous, but considering the time and place in which the film takes place, there’s both realism and drama when Albert says something like, ‘I’ve never been alone in a room with someone like you (SIC).’ Indeed Logue meeting Albert is like oil and water, but a remarkably profound and emotional relationship which develops ever so slowly over these years.
King Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson, the twice divorced American socialite whom he marries forcing him to abdicate the throne are made out to be the villains and as played by Guy Pearce and Eve Best, pompous boobs really. A curious choice, considering history has always portrayed the pair as romantic heroes for choosing love over fame, power and celebrity. It was a little oft putting, though I guess the reality lies somewhere in between these two characterizations.
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush rightfully deserve their acclaim, and both might just win Oscars for their roles, but Hooper’s direction should not go unnoticed either. His lenswork is more than than just point and shoot or beautifying the era, he makes a conscious effort to show us something fresh. All things considered it’s a rather awkward visual philosophy, using wide angle lenses to open up vertical space in the frame vertically. Most of his compositions frame his characters in the lower half of the screen, filling the negative space with the expansive rooms, staircases or cloudy London skies. But with this approach Hooper is forced to put his actors closer to the camera, which translates subliminally to being closer to the audience.
The screenplay is as perfect as any of these period dramas. The lengthy time frame is compressed with just a couple montage scenes, and when the film does abruptly cut to 3 or 4 or 5 years later, we never feel as if we’ve missed out or been hopscotching through history. The final act speech is inspiring stuff, not only does it narratively bookend the opening and close off George’s character arc, but shows the effect of his personal journey on the fate of the world at large. The stakes couldn’t be any higher and the gravitas of the moment is paid off by Hooper’s superb direction of this final set piece.
In the end, The King’s Speech manages to humanize these entitled Royals better than any other film or recent memory. Despite George’s right, title and privilege, he’s a self-hating broken man, emasculated by his stutter. And Hooper makes us feel every moment of his pain as well as his eventual triumphs.