Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring Colin Firth, Geoffery Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall, Derek Jacobi, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Gambon
Written by David Seidler
First thing’s first: The King’s Speech is a great film. It was not, however, the best film of last year. That movie was Inception. That The King’s Speech captured the Oscarshould not be a surprise, however. It’s a masterpiece of inspired acting, a subtly wonderful biopic and it covers, in a most unconventional way, a crucial period in the history of Western Civilization.
Lionel Logue: [as George “Berty” is lighting up a cigarette] Please don’t do that.
Prince George: I’m sorry?
Lionel Logue: I believe sucking smoke into your lungs will kill you.
Prince George: My physicians say it relaxes the throat.
Lionel Logue: They’re idiots.
Prince George: They’ve all been knighted.
Lionel Logue: Makes it official then…my castle, my rules.
In this exchange, Lionel Logue (Rush) establishes a level playing field with then Prince George (Firth). This necessary step, while seemingly disrespectful to the haughtiness of the British Royal Family, is necessary in establishing the trust and friendship integral to pushing him from a kind and frustrated Prince to a King that helped bring England through it’s darkest hour and into a new era of respect and prominence.
The film begins with a scene so unnerving, I almost developed a speech impediment myself. Speaking at the close of the 1925 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium, Firth, through his own wonderful acting prowess as well as Noonan’s masterful direction, has about as clear a breakdown as I have ever seen one have on his feet in front of thousands. And yet he survives to see a series of quacks called professionals about his speech impediment, to the point where he begs his wife (Bonham Carter) to promise him that there will be no more.
There is one more, however. Logue is an Australian actor and speech therapist. Upon meeting Logue, George is immediately taken aback. After refusing to desist in calling him by his informal family name, Bertie, while refusing the Prince’s insistence on calling him “Doctor.” Then there are the unconventional methods. While not on the level of putting marbles in his mouth, George, already constantly frustrated, rushes out on Logue, not, however, before he is able to give him a record. This record ends up turning the tide of George’s heart.
Complicating matters, the Prince’s brother, Edward/David (Pearce) is carrying on with one married woman, and then another. The impending events regarding his actions and the passing of their father, George V (Gambon). These events conspire to raise the stakes, making his efforts with Logue more and more necessary. Then there’s Hitler…
The only time they come close to exposing the fourth wall is when Jacobi is on the screen, as the stuffy, out of touch Archbishop of Canterbury. Whenever I see a religious man shown to be bigoted, officious and aloof, it makes me wonder how much of this is the imagination of the person’s making the film as well the person acting the part. In reality, the Archbishop was less concerned with formality and dress than with essential truths. This is a far way from which he is portrayed by Jacobi. Acting of any magnitude would have at least added a dimension that Jacobi’s portrayal took away from the film, which was one note, at best. A waste of his acting talent.
Other typical movie tricks employed by the filmmakers include having Churchill, who is wonderfully played by Timothy Spalls, against type, as present for almost every major event, as well on the side of the Prince during the abdication. In truth, Churchill backed George’s brother and their relationship was rather cool until later in the war. The scenes of discord between Logue and the Prince / King are cinematic conventions as well, to ramp up the drama, not because they hold much in the way of truth. The King also did not see the Prime Minister before Chamberlain resign in disgrace: he was a national hero and just plain tired of the rigors of the office. King George VI went on to support Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement, as well, which only added to the blundering of British leadership. These derivations are a weakness that most movies suffer from when they perceive that showing an inordinate number (read: more than 1) of flaws weakens, rather than strengthens the story. This is wrong, of course. It takes more skill to show the whole character. Most execs don’t think the audience will go for it.
This is not to take away from the significant strengths of this film. There is an understated, but appropriate elegance to all the players in the events of this time. Rather than pomp and circumstance, they choose to portray themselves as people who face challenges internal and external, primarily with the same goal in mind. There is no tongue in cheek attempt to make the beliefs and mores of the time look quaint or outdated. We are in the time of King George VI, even though the people who make the film may be of a more “enlightened” time. To a great many, there was no more enlightened time.
To say Firth, Rush and Bonham Carter give the performances of a lifetime would be misleading. These performances are all right in within their wheelhouse; it’s just unusual to have three great performances pieced together so nicely. Any of the three could have won the Oscar for their performances. It can’t be overstated how good the performances were. These people come to life right in front of us, and I feel that we are watching history unfold in front of us, within the circumference of a microphone.
Firth is quite easily the best actor of this generation. His variations of British men are almost always a mixture of dignified, flawed and loving. The way he alters the mixture from film to film is astounding in its complexity. The scene in which he gave a less than exemplary introductory speech to Parliament and then came home to his daughters and his wife brought me there with him in the depth of emotion and comfort his family gave him. I have never been a King, but I have been there.
Rush, in particular, gives such dignity to the common British man, I wish he could be in every movie. There is an unassuming intelligence to his portrayal which feels loving and kind. He shows vulnerability matched with a pride that is not misplaced. He, too, is a happy family man, and has an uncommon respect for the feelings of his wife, but also for the well being of his patients.
I have not been a fan of Bonham Carter for a while. Ever since Fight Club, she has gone seemingly out of her way to play weird and strangely undignified characters. In this way, she’s been like the Lady Gaga of the acting world: the talent is there, but so is the propensity for wearing a meat dress. The way she nails the Queen in this film is remarkable. She gives her a wisdom and depth of propriety and character that has long been attributed to the Queen Mum. It shocks me how well she did in this film, given her past decade or so on film. Like the Queen Mum, she has the potential to age incredibly well.
Which brings me back to Noonan. Did he deserve his best direction award? There were better efforts out there (Fincher and Nolan), to be sure, and he should have fought for a bit more historical accuracy, given the effectiveness of the accuracy he did put out there. Most importantly, he steps back, lets the actors act to their best instincts, provides a subtle, humble and symmetrical balance to the background and makes no attempts to pound present day politics into history. What he has created deserves to be remembered, and will be. This is not quite Chariots of Fire in the Oscar forgettability realm. Definitely not Out of Africa. More like a more solid, less violent Gladiator.
(****1/2 out of *****)