The King’s Speech (2010) dir. Tom Hooper
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter, Timothy Spall, Derek Jacobi
By Alan Bacchus
I still have sour grapes from the victory of The King's Speech over The Social Network. Until David Fincher gets his Oscar, I might continue to harbour ill feelings about this film. But it's a pretty good movie. I can't deny it that. It's on DVD/Blu-ray now, and it holds up well on second viewing and on the small screen. Here's my original review.
There seems to be an endless number of Oscar-worthy stories produced about the Royal Family. This year’s awards fodder is the story of King George VI, the quiet king and father of Queen Elizabeth II, who took over from the abdicated Edward VIII, and who famously had a stutter. Of course, 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, when 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 humiliates him. Moving on to 1932, after working with 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 arranged, during which the sly doctor manages to prove to the doubting Bertie that his condition is psychological. With trust fully in place, the pair embarks on a decades-long journey toward the rehabilitation of Bertie’s 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 also the dramatic events of the 1930s that 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.” Indeed, Logue meeting Albert is like oil and water, but a remarkably profound and emotional relationship 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 off-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 lens work is more than just point-and-shoot or beautifying the era, as 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 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 speech in the final act is inspiring stuff, as not only does it narratively bookend the opening and closing of George’s character arc, but it 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 of 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.
The King's Speech is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.