The King’s Speech

Can you pack any more Oscar bait into one movie than there is in The King’s Speech? Based on a true story, it stars a previously nominated British actor, playing an English monarch, who has to overcome a physical impairment, with the help of a brilliant but eccentric teacher, played by a former best actor winner, no less, to triumph during the titanic struggle of World War II. When Colin Firth, who plays George VI, the monarch in question, read the screenplay for the first time, he probably reached for the phone and rented his tux for Oscar night right then.

The mere presence of calculation, however, doesn’t necessarily mean the film that the film isn’t any good.

George VI or Bertie as his family called him, never expected to become King and because he had a bad stammer, never wanted to. Unfortunately, his brother, Edward VIII, played by Guy Pearce, fell in love with an American divorcee and abdicated the throne, pushing George into the unwanted limelight just as the tides of war in Europe are rising. These are dark times for England and the people look to their monarch for a few inspiring words. Unfortunately, all his attempts at public speaking are disastrous. The problem had been with him since childhood. Since he was not the heir to the throne, it was not seen as a huge impediment. But as his older brother grows more feckless, Bertie has to take up the slack, which includes the occasional speech or radio address.  To help him, his wife, Elizabeth, played by Helena Bonham Carter, and incidentally the mother of the current queen, finds a speech therapist named Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush. Logue’s methods are unconventional. Where George’s doctors have advised him that smoking will loosen his lungs and make it easier to speak, Logue bans the practice, saying it will make matters worse.  He also insists that he be on a first name basis with his pupil and that their lessons be informal. In the end, he becomes more of a psychologist than a speech therapist. Logue guides Bertie through his coronation and eventually through his wartime speeches.

The King’s Speech is a very English film, which means that it has a stately pace and clever dialog. The only element that’s unorthodox is the lack of sumptuous cinematography. Instead Tom Hooper, the director and Danny Cohen, the cinematographer have gone with a muted, naturally lit look. They also frame the shots in a weird way, giving people too much headroom or crowding them onto the edge of the frame. My guess is that it is meant to symbolize Bertie’s, or in some cases Lionel’s state of mind, but instead it makes the shots flat and jarring, and emphasizes the English obsession with ugly wallpaper.

With a cast like this, of course the acting is excellent. Colin Firth approaches the lead with his usual centered stoicism. Even through his stutters, his quips are effective. When he’s describing his childhood with siblings who taunted him and a father who encouraged it, because he thought it would toughen his second son, Firth captures Bertie’s resignation about what happened and the muted pain that still comes with the memories. That’s a lot to pack into one facial expression.

Helena Bonham Carter plays Elizabeth as very much a member of the ruling class, but one that doesn’t take it all that seriously. Geoffrey Rush’s Logue is an eccentric, unfailingly polite but still insistent that things be done his way. He also has his vulnerabilities, such as when he tries out for a community theater production of Richard III and is awful. You can see his love of acting and his disappointment that he’s unable to do it.

I hate to admit this but I’m somewhat ambiguous about this film. It didn’t really touch me and I can’t put my finger on the reason why. Was it the English reserve at its heart, or the apparently cynical ploy to get Oscar nominations, the wallpaper, or was I just in a bad mood? All I can say is that I really didn’t detect any cynicism at the heart of this project. Certainly not as much as there was in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Everyone concerned seemed sincere enough. It’s enjoyable in many places but the whole doesn’t hang together.


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December 2010
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