I can’t imagine what it must be like to be born into royalty. That kind of life, for all the material wealth it provides, must be in so many ways devoid of any real human interaction. It’s a world that is so distant from “commoners” that imagining the rigidity of its daily life is almost incomprehensible. Even more so are the expectations put upon each individual within that realm. It is with this in mind that The King’s Speech develops itself.
This Tom Hooper-directed film is, as many have said, a rousing crowd-pleaser. But to dismiss it as just that misses the point entirely. The King’s Speech, acted with perfection, and deftly scripted (by David Seidler) and directed, slowly reveals itself as a beautifully observant story of friendship between two unlikely men.
Colin Firth, in what is as flawless a performance as any I have seen, plays Albert, the Duke of York and son to then-current King George V (Michael Gambon). Though his older brother David (a.k.a. Edward VIII, played by Guy Pearce), is set to inherit the throne, Albert’s father seems intent on getting him to give speeches for the royalty. This is in no small part because Edward seems more interested in the pleasures of drinking, socializing, and Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), than in being a prince and a king.
As The King’s Speech opens, Albert is set to give a speech at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. He is unable to properly do so, as he suffers from a pretty debilitating stutter. He has practically given up trying to cure it when he decides to see Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, in one of his very best performances), a speech therapist who normally works with children.
Albert, of course, eventually succeeds to the throne to become King George VI. (If you don’t know the history behind it, it is fascinating to watch, so I will do no spoiling here.) This happens on the eve of World War II as Germany threatens to, and then goes through with, its invasion of Poland. Launching Britain into war, King George VI must be the rock upon which the country rests. But it is difficult to place one’s hopes and confidence in a man who cannot evoke confidence within himself.
The title of the film is a play on words: It is firstly his speech, as in the king’s speaking and stutter; it is secondly the speech he must give when launching England into war with Germany. Explaining all of this is not a spoiler because the facts mean close to nothing with regard to the depth of the film, as the brilliance of The King’s Speech comes through its analysis of its characters and the relationship between King George VI and Lionel Logue.
Logue is an unconventional speech therapist. Whereas others treated the king at a distance, or made him stuff marbles in his mouth (a humiliation for anyone, let alone a royal figure), Logue compels the king to actually think about his own life and who he is. Thus, he forces the king to consider that his problem is not simply a physical one; it’s a psychological one as well.
“No one is born with a stutter,” Logue says matter-of-factly. Furthermore, he places the king and himself on an equal footing. He calls him “Bertie", a name only his closest family calls him.
Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter in Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech
What makes The King’s Speech so special is that it doesn’t simply tell us “this is difficult for a member of the English monarchy to do.” Instead, the film shows us why it’s so difficult. Take the scene in which Albert’s father, King George V, dies. The whole family stands around his bed, stone-faced and cold, not so much holding in their emotions as suppressing and ignoring them. David, however, cannot do what his mother and brother are doing, and breaks down crying, embracing his mother, the Queen (Claire Bloom). She not only ignores his embrace, but has a mild look of disgust on her face as well. It is a heartbreaking scene, underscoring the difficulty Albert himself faces in not only succeeding his father, but also in embracing himself as his own person.
Director Tom Hooper, who could have easily manufactured his film’s emotional heft, handles it with adept control. Hooper, in fact, exhibits a masterful directorial hand here. The same can be said about all of the film’s elements. Eve Stewart’s production design and Netty Chapman’s art direction are impeccable, Alexandre Desplat’s score is wonderful, and David Seidler’s screenplay is one of the best to come around in a long time.
I’m actually amazed that Seidler’s is an original screenplay, and not one based on a book. While watching The King’s Speech, I kept wondering if it was adapted from a memoir by Lionel Logue or some biography of King George VI, and was surprised to find out that the screenplay was entirely David Seidler’s creation. He deserves an Oscar for it. Along with Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, who both give great, Oscar-worthy performances – and so does Helena Bonham Carter as Albert’s wife Elizabeth and the future Queen of England.
Although Bonham Carter has relatively little screen time, her character is essential to the development of Firth’s. Coming from such a dysfunctional family, perhaps the only functional being Albert can rely on is Elizabeth. Bonham Carter, I should add, has never been better.
I’ve noticed that I find myself more and more attracted to films that focus on human interactions. It is not so much that I dislike action-oriented movies, but that I find the way that we as humans form relationships with each other to be utterly fascinating.
Along with The Social Network, another film focused on how humans relate to one another, The King’s Speech is one of the best films of 2010. Though strikingly different in their tones, periods and characters, both films are concerned with the way we, as humans, navigate the world around us.
I watched The King’s Speech with a marked interest and surprising investment as each scene unfolded and each conversation played out. Many films have been concerned with royalty and the English monarchy in particular. But not many such films carry as much humanity as The King’s Speech.
© Nathan Donarum
THE KING’S SPEECH (2010). Director: Tom Hooper. Cast: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, Claire Bloom, Orlando Wells, Derek Jacobi, Jennifer Ehle, Eve Best, Timothy Spall, Anthony Andrews. Screenplay: David Seidler
Photos: The Weinstein Co.
4 Academy Award Wins
Best Picture: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Gareth Unwin
Best Direction: Tom Hooper
Best Actor: Colin Firth
Best Original Screenplay David Seidler
8 Academy Award Nominations
Best Supporting Actor: Geoffrey Rush
Best Supporting Actress: Helena Bonham Carter
Best Cinematography: Danny Cohen
Best Film Editing: Tariq Anwar
Best Original Score: Alexandre Desplat
Best Art Direction: Eve Stewart, Judy Farr
Best Costume Design: Jenny Beavan
Best Sound Mixing: Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen, John Midgley