Just how relevant are the Royal family, anyway? On the one hand, you have the Prince of Wales’ car being smeared with paint, which some deem more important news than the government’s policy on higher education. On the other, there are those gleefully looking forward to the glut of bank holidays coming in early May, uninterested in the reason.
And here we have The King’s Speech, a film that, at first glance, seems to be spinning royal themes into awards fodder in a similar way to 2006’s hugely successful The Queen, and even though both films share a similar set-up of distant monarchy startled by public matters, then re-aligning their private business before our gaze, it is a rather different beast. One that, even when stripped of its major, monarchic themes, is still a compelling, wholly affecting character drama.
At its heart lies the story of two men of differing social classes forming an enduring friendship. One of the two just happens to be King of the United Kingdom (and the last Emperor of India, to boot).
Prince Albert (Colin Firth), second in line to the throne, yet destined to one day become King George VI, is beset with a stammer, which wouldn’t be much of a problem for a member of the Royal family, but the 20th century’s rise of radio broadcasts and public speaking renders this more than a private problem. After every avenue seems to have been exhausted, Albert’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) -we know her as the Queen Mum – pays a visit to the idiosyncratic Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose unorthodox techniques first and foremost consist of a complete rejection of the stuffy formalities of royal convention.
With its well-worn themes of friendship across social boundaries, the overcoming of debilitating flaws, and the upper classes brought down to human levels, surprise isn’t a quality The King’s Speech possesses, but it has much to offer.
Most immediately, the performances are stellar. Firth, in particular, manages to step into what does, in theory, sound like one of the many Darcy-esque, aristocratic roles that made his name, and bring to it not only considerable dignity and dry wit, but also a devastating vulnerability and an emotional fragility that recalls his revelatory work in A Single Man.
Likewise, Rush and Bonham Carter are delightful, with the former, in particular, filling out Logue with a kooky sense of irreverence that never oversteps the mark. After all, the scenes between the two men make up the film’s meat. It is where David Seidler’s script finds its best footing, as a frequently comic two-hander where Logue susses out his new patient and slowly applies his odd exercises to help bolster confidence, and calm his nerves, in preparation for his public duties.
The stammer, after all, would make or break the picture as a whole, and it is handled perfectly. Firth’s performance is not overworked, and through some subtle sound design, the clicks and cracks of spittle, tongue and teeth unable to form words become completely engaging. Likewise, the audience becomes accustomed, like Albert, to fear public speaking, as each appearance or speech is preceded by long tracking shots, building tension towards the looming silence of the microphone.
It is with such subtle stylistic flourishes that director Tom Hooper works, creating a film that is meticulous, yet economical.
Indeed, it is only in its wider themes of the royalty speaking for the nation, as war looms and King George VI delivers an integral speech against Nazi aggression, that the film stands with anything less than perfect posture. Perhaps it is the closed-in perspective, or our twenty-first century eyes looking with cynicism at times past, but is it true that the monarch speaks for the populace, despite holding little power? It is a question the film never truly answers, as the common people reside, quite understandably, considering the script’s focus, at the edges of the frame.
That aside, we are presented with a polished, well-rounded drama that subtly and artfully crafts its personal themes. It will certainly garner awards attention, especially for its three primary actors, and, apart from being up against perhaps more deserving competition, there is no serious criticism that should prevent it from scoring a handful of wins.
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