***originally written 13 January 2011***
New Year generally brings about a glut of furrowed brows on cinema screens as Oscar season brings us a wealth of dramas all hungry for appreciation. It’s very easy to find a lot of the earnestness in this a little tiresome. Where summer brings with it the popcorn fluff, winter is generally the time of ponderously serious films, and if your film is a period piece, or about a physical disability, well all the more points to you. Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, as many of you will surely already know, is set in the ’30s, and deals with Prince Albert’s struggle with a speech impediment. HELLO OSCAR COMMITTEE!!!!
The film has already been praised to the rafters, and I usually take that kind of thing with a pinch of salt this time of year (though I only expect greatness from True Grit later this month!). I was happy therefor to be warmly surprised by The King’s Speech, which manages to do a number of great things in it’s two hours; humanise the Royal family of the twentieth century, present the period piece to the viewer in a thoroughly contemporary way, and score huge crowd-pleasing points. This is actually a feel-good movie to rival the best of them, and a great bromance to boot.
Colin Firth gives Prince Albert (or Bertie if you’re close to him) a bracing physicality, but in a thoroughly unusual way. Here is a man constricted both physically and psychologically. It’s a wonderfully pensive, tightly wound performance, but one that Firth never lets slip into pantomime. You can read the frustration in every protracted sentence, in his wearily closing eyes. His performance has gathered much praise, and it is well deserved, but it should not detracted attention from the other key players here either. Geoffrey Rush is at least as good as Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, the theatrical man-of-the-people whose presence ignites every scene he is in. Indeed the film is at it’s best when it allows these two actors to crackle off of one another, most of it’s great joys coming from simple therapy scenes in a dilapidated room – nodding to the story’s previous incarnation as a stage play. But also worth mentioning is Helena Bonham Carter, who gives life, wit and resilience to the future ‘Queen Mum’ – genuinely one of the best things I’ve seen her do in years.
But where The King’s Speech scores points above other period dramas battling for your esteemed attention of recent times is in it’s script (delicately balanced to please and delight with it’s rhythms and cadence – ironic for a movie about being tongue-tied) and even more so, in it’s execution. Hooper brings an energetic, young filmmaker’s approach to the project, throwing in cavalier extreme angles and shot selections that feel very modern against the 1930s setting. However, they are not simply there to appear flashy or different, but to underscore the dramatic and psychological themes running through the film. Whenever ‘Bertie’ is flustered or anxious or unsettled, he is crammed into the corners of the screen or pushed unusually close to the lens. These unorthodox compositions communicate his claustrophobia within his own skin incredibly well. Not only does it give the film a unique look, it draws the viewer in, allowing one to understand and feel for him. The knock on effect of a very dynamic aesthetic does the film no harm at all.
And if you’re not charmed by the technical aspects or the pleasures in the writing and performance, then I defy you not to get wrapped up in the final act, as war breaks out with Germany and Albert (now King George VI) is faced with his toughest challenge yet, the first of what could be many national addresses designed to rally support and conviction from his countrymen. The film may tread well-worn roads in efforts to build up suspense for the speech, but the delivery in cinematic terms is just as extraordinary as the speech itself. A masterpiece in editing.
It’s not perfect. The amp-up into the third act is a little plodding. Guy Pierce and Timothy Spall seem miscast as Edward VIII and Winston Churchill respectively, or at least, they bring a little too much ham to the table compared to everyone else. And as much as it ticks the right boxes, I can’t see many people coming away from The King’s Speech and calling it their new favourite film. However, neither do I expect many to walk away feeling dissatisfied with how they’ve spent the last two hours. It’s a rousing, enterprising piece of filmmaking, one that shows there are still new choices to be made within the straightjacket of British period drama, and one that does deserve a nomination or two as the season gets underway.