I can’t say that The King’s Speech appealed to me before the awards. Not even Colin Firth as a favorite had me collecting pennies for the price of admission. I was hardly intrigued by the premise of a stuttering royal. And yes, I know everyone who saw it said it was brilliant. I figured it for a drama meant for DVD if anything. Then it picked up the Academy Award for Best Film, but even more interesting? Tom Hooper was given the Oscar for Best Director. Now I had to watch The King’s Speech, because, as you’ll recall, the other directors nominated in that category had a fantastic year. How did Hooper beat out David Fincher (The Social Network) or Christopher Nolan (Inception)? I haven’t seen True Grit under the Coen brothers’ direction, but I know they are quite talented. So I saw the multi-award-winning The King’s Speech.
First (to get it out of the way): I am still unsure how Tom Hooper won Best Director. I speculate that the judges did not want to give it to the others, or could not decide between at least two of the others. I am guessing Tom Hooper is the most polite and politic choice. Now, I am not saying Hooper did a bad job of directing. The King’s Speech is a beautiful film, one of which Hooper can be proud. However, my pick would have been Fincher, who had, coincidentally, an equally uninteresting premise with which to film.
Hooper’s work in The King’s Speech is pleasantly unexpected. His choices were unusual, and startling—yet not uncomfortably so, just intriguing. Roger Ebert observes:
Director Tom Hooper makes an interesting decision with his sets and visuals. The movie is largely shot in interiors, and most of those spaces are long and narrow. That’s unusual in historical dramas, which emphasize sweep and majesty and so on. Here we have long corridors, a deep and narrow master control room for the BBC, rooms that seem peculiarly oblong. I suspect he may be evoking the narrow, constricting walls of Albert’s throat as he struggles to get words out.
I hadn’t thought about the “constricting walls as throats” and the observation is brilliant. My mind is racing for the moments when the camera allows for breath. Any space that looms large is not sweeping and majestic, but dark and swallowing, the oppressiveness is palpable. The staircase winding downward as we look upward—lovely. There are a few scenes that are exterior shots, I would like to review them to see how it works in consideration to the claustrophobia of the inside sets. But certainly, in light of the constrictions, the movement of the King after his speech onto the balcony before his subjects is a greater significance than just a nice historical place to end the film.
What I found pleasantly distracting is the blocking, (to oversimplify?) where the character is positioned on the screen. Most noticeable, due to the sparseness of the furnishings, is in Logue’s office and the exchanges between “Bertie” (Colin Firth) and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). When conversing, the camera moves between their perspectives as is normal enough. But neither character is in the center. They are off toward the side, small in the space, rarely ever a closer shot. This choice puts the viewer in the camera’s seat, looking back and forth so as to observe—and yet, the shot refuses to be wholly objective because the actor is looking at the camera when speaking, thus creating a more subjective moment that would connect the viewer to the character, and possibly enthrall. I am supposing the effect is to endear the viewer to the respective characters while yet maintaining the chill and formality distancing the two characters, allowing us to experience some of the frustration of being inhibited. Restrictions and distance wars against the values of deeper human connection. Cold formality is juxtaposed with genuine affection, the stiff upper lip and passionate outburst.
Second: How is it that I did not know Guy Pearce was in The King’s Speech?! I was so very happy to see him.
One of the reasons The King’s Speech proves to be a must-see is the acting. While it should be expected that these actors would be a good experience, the film wouldn’t have been carried off half-so-well without the caliber of acting exhibited.
Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth is a brilliant casting move. She gives Firth a run for his money when it comes to wordless emoting. It is her face, her affection and worry and pain for her husband that sets the shifted tone for the film; warning the viewer that this will be a different sort of film about royalty.
I marveled over Firth’s cotton-mouthed clicks, restrictive vocal gesticulations, his enthralling struggle for control over temper and despair. The delivery of his lines. His accolades for this film were well-deserved. He moved so convincingly within a difficult and fluctuating range of emotion. In The King’s Speech everyone tread with such fragile composure, which creates an incredible and necessary tension in the film. The humor amidst the pain had to be well-timed, any sense of relaxing posture carefully modulated. The silence had to be perfectly delivered.
Third: The direction of the film is refreshing. David Seidler’s screenplay does not dismiss the dark and sinister undertones, the sordid affairs/relationships amongst the Royal family and their political attachments, but it chooses to focus on the younger and lesser filmed brother. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times didn’t care for the “pop-historical” take.
““The King’s Speech,” a buddy story about aggressively charming opposites — Colin Firth as the stutterer who would be king and Geoffrey Rush as the speech therapist — comes with heaping spoonfuls of sugar. […] Each character has his moments, instances when Bertie the closed book tentatively opens and Logue’s arrogance gets away from him, but both are too decent, too banal and the film too ingratiating to resonate deeply. Albert’s impediment certainly pales in comparison with the drama surrounding his older, popular brother.”
I do not wholly disagree with Dargis in her assertion that the film is perhaps “too ingratiating” to hold an edge, and such was my concern with the premise before viewing. However, it isn’t really a failure per se, but a matter of taste–a matter of opinion. I tire of the recyclable salacious affair and political gymnastics set behind heavily drawn curtains; Tracing cultural reflections out of humans behaving scandalously to simultaneously reaffirm social mores. The drama and mirroring in The King’s Speech are of a different sort. A story more commonly found among lower class workers: overcoming difficult odds as victims of an abused/impoverished state.
In following Bertie (Firth), the film looks at the royal members as people, as a family, that are somewhat victims of circumstance, certainly the ill-effects of being born into responsibility, stringent cultural expectation. What hangs in the balance is whether the film is able to hold itself short of alienating or mocking audiences in its effort to draw upon the universality of human struggles despite the class distinctions. It does. While I am primed to scoff at the human interest stories of CEOs and Soccer Moms, an alternate albeit compassionate glimpse into a royal family was not a nauseating experience. Hooper, Seidler, and cast finesse just the right amount of sugar after all.
The King’s Speech will and should appeal to a great audience, and for generations to come. The premise, no matter how initially regarded, is a compelling one. No matter the impetus, one should find an excuse to see The King’s Speech. This really is a brilliant film.
****Note about the rating. Ebert notes at the bottom of his review: “The R rating refers to Logue’s use of vulgarity. It is utterly inexplicable. This is an excellent film for teenagers.” I agree. Sean suggests that the intensity in which the coarse language is delivered is something to be considered, but in light of what teens do watch, the rating on this film is an oddity. The vulgar language is hardly gratuitous, in the film it is a facet of a continual exploration–who and what defines vulgarity; and how might crossing some lines allow us the confidence to cross the potentially more vital ones–when is it necessary.
Director: Tom Hooper
Writer: David Seidler (screenplay)
Stars: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon.
Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Gareth Unwin, Geoffrey Rush
Music by Alexandre Desplat
Cinematography Danny Cohen
Editing by Tariq Anwar
Running Time 118 minutes