(Review re-posted as The King’s Speech is released in the U.K. today)
The majority response at Thursday morning’s London Film Festival press screening of ‘The King’s Speech’ (which bowed at the fest that evening) was an incredibly strong sign of its legs as the impending Oscar season looms; as Tom Hooper’s name rolled over the closing credits, the auditorium filled with a rapturous round of applause.
Never in the habit of applauding at press screenings (I have never, in any press screening, even at a festivals, seen pundits applaud a film), I quickly quelled my slack-jawed surprise and gave the film a hand myself. One of the year’s strongest films, and right up the alley of the Academy’s tastes – a regal masterclass of writing, acting, direction, editing and cinematography – it is a film now best considered a front-runner (alongside ‘The Social Network’) to take the Best Picture gong home on February 27th next year.
‘The King’s Speech’ depicts the seemingly unwinnable war that King George VI (Colin Firth) fights against a crippling stammer. Beginning while George’s father, King George V (Michael Gambon), was still alive (and George VI was at this point still Prince Albert, or to his family, “Bertie”), Hooper traces Bertie’s complicated and unlikely ascendancy to the throne, jump-started by his father’s death, and the swift appointment and then subsequent abdication of the Kingship by Bertie’s brother, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce).
Aided – at first with Bertie’s overwhelming reluctance – by eccentric but brilliant speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), and by his wife, Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), Bertie slowly but surely learns the nature of his condition and how to overcome it, yet with World War 2 looming, Logue needs to ensure that the King is prepared to give an inspiring speech to the masses rather than an embarassingly stilted, uneasy one.
‘The King’s Speech’ fundamentally succeeds as that rare period film with a far wider accessibility, due to not only the charismatic performances and the nuanced screenplay, but its strange, unconventional subject matter (accounting for an almost negligible aspect of British history, according to many). Keen to deal more with characters within the basic framework of a cleverly retooled underdog story, Hooper has teased out of the brilliant script and Oscar-worthy central performances an electric crowd-pleaser that borrows the best of Brit period cinema (self-deprecatory humour and impeccable production values) while eliding the very worst (the fanciful whimsy and stodgy dryness often mistaken for wit).
Even from the mortifying opening scene in which Bertie fluffs up an important speech, this is a film more keen to amuse and entertain than educate or tax intellectually; the juxtaposition of Bertie’s absolute lack of preparation with the absurdly distended prep ritual of a BBC radio presenter (whose announcement is absurdly short) sets the tone from the outset. David Siedler’s screenplay – a sure lock for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination – juggles his characters as at once graceful and pompously, often hilariously inelegant; Bertie (or rather, Firth) looks fantastic in the King’s attire, but his viciously short temper and gob-smacked manner towards Logue’s idiosyncracies give him a likeable oafishness.
Carter’s Queen Elizabeth, similarly, is very self-concerned with how her subjects regard her (particularly her title), and though it’s the type of role Carter can blast out before lunch time, it is an unspeakably charming and very funny supporting role (which itself has decent chances for a Supporting Actress nod).
The screenplay thankfully does not laze about in slinging these characters together in the same room; by no more than ten minutes in, Logue is in the picture, yet Seidler also breaks up the central occupation (and heightens character development) by throwing in a few smart asides, like a short subplot about Logue’s ancillary career as an actor, which is important later. Though a very flamboyant and charming picture in any regard, it is a lot of the small details – such as when Bertie, who even struggles to tell his children a story without stammering, amusingly uses selective language so as not to stammer – which make all the difference.
The clashing of an uptight Prince and a resolutely self-assured therapist makes for very compelling viewing, not only for the sake of a game of one-upsmanship between the overly proud, embarassed Bertie and the no-nonsense Logue, but also because it provides a peculiar, even quirky insight into the little-known profession of speech therapy. The techniques used – such as distracting Bertie from his own voice by playing loud music through headphones, and having him fill his gaps in speech with expletives (a scene which gave the BBFC a huge pain in the neck last week) – are clinically displayed yet interesting to observe.
Though the film makes little attempt to politicise, Seidler ensures that it is rooted firmly in its staged time, remarking the advent of sound as having inevitably changed not only news media and the dissemination of information, but the political landscape entire. The corridors of power now have to pervade into our homes rather than just look good atop a horse, and when crossed against Bertie’s furious temper, which threatens to derail the therapy sessions from the outset, it makes for surprisingly intense series of exchanges despite the end outcome being academic.
Colin Firth amazes me. His performance last year in ‘A Single Man’ should have taken home the gong, but alas, his talents cannot compete with the summation of Jeff Bridges’ career that was his victory for ‘Crazy Heart’ (a good, though not revelatory performance). However, the Academy owe Firth big time for that; they probably know it too, but even on its own merits, this is a transcendent performance that engages fully with the figure of George VI as an anguished soul – keen not to be perceived as the third Mad King George – while also admitting him to be more than a bit pompous, but also self-deprecating.
As the walls close-in with the looming war (prompting the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain), Firth unequivocally sells us the dire straits of the situation.
As for the speech itself? Unquestionably the film’s best and most emotionally stirring scene, backed by Beethoven’s No. 7 (which cleverly stutters and reprises to reflect how well Bertie is reading the speech), Hooper ekes out of Firth a magnificently stilted rendition of the titular speech, and most impressively, refuses to play the scene up. Bertie still has his hand held through it by Logue, but it nevertheless does the job of galvanizing the people.
One of the year’s strongest films in every aspect – sumptuously directed, wonderfully acted, smartly scripted and just a pleasure to watch – ‘The King’s Speech’ will rightly rack up a string of nods (and surely a few wins) next February.
‘The King’s Speech’ is released on Nov. 26th in the U.S. and on Jan. 7th in the U.K.