The King’s Speech (2010): As Sensible as a Pair of Colin Firth’s Sensible Shoes…
I tried making this point recently, a little naively, to a Scot, but he wasn’t very sympathetic. I wasn’t trying to make a point in a imperialist or royalist way, I just genuinely feel sorry for the Queen. Poor old boot. Someone born into extreme poverty can make it to wealth and fame through a combination of hard work, talent and luck; someone born into extreme privilege will find it virtually impossible to make it to anonymity. I mean, do you ever get the feeling the Queen actually enjoys being the Queen? She’s still at it now, plugging away at public duties with that strange tight-lipped smile and hoping Prince Phillip will keep his mouth shut, when she should be retired like all the other codgers and at home watching the snooker.
“The King’s Speech”, Tom Hooper’s handsome, Oscar-heavy historical drama, touches upon some of the loneliness and frustration suffered by a normal human being trapped in this most public of gilded cages. Colin Firth plays Prince Albert, the Queen’s father, or Bertie to his close family and friends.
The Prince has a problem which makes his public duties a particular torment for him – he suffers from a terrible stammer. The film opens with his humiliation at the 1925 British Empire Exhibition, when his stuttering in front of a packed Wembley stadium brought him to an embarrassing standstill.
Bertie’s been to various quack doctors with various outlandish “cures” without success, and gives up, seemingly happy to let his father, King George (Michael Gambon) and flash, dashing brother Prince Edward (Guy Pearce) hog the airwaves. However, his wife Elizabeth locates another therapist, an Aussie failed actor operating out of a shabby basement, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
Logue is a generous and loquacious character; his own failure as a Shakespearean actor, implied to be because of a prejudice against an Australian accent on a thespian playing the Bard, doesn’t outwardly shake his self-belief. Logue is relaxed in the presence of Royalty, and his methods unorthodox – as is his insistence on calling the Prince by the familiar “Bertie”
Bertie is resistant to Logue’s methods at first, until he is goaded into reading a soliloquy from Hamlet while listening to music to drown out his own voice. Logue records it, and when the Prince eventually plays it back, is stunned to hear the stammer all but gone.
The Prince and the Therapist become good friends, and Logue gently coaxes the possible pyschological reasons behind the impediment. In these scenes, we see a glimpse of a lonely boy with health problems, tormented by his nanny and terrified of his strict father.
The film only gains any sense of dramatic urgency when the King dies, and his older son takes the throne. However, the new King’s relationship with Mrs Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) is a grave concern – as head of the Church of England, which opposes divorce, he cannot marry a divorced woman. Meanwhile, war is approaching, and Bertie is left in the lurch when his older brother abdicates and runs off with Mrs Simpson. The climax is the nervous King’s radio address to the Empire as Britain declares war on Nazi Germany…
“The King’s Speech” is thoroughly a respectable, entertaining, rainy Sunday afternoon movie. It is about as square as a film can get, and is just the kind of film the Academy loves throwing skiploads of Oscars at.
Colin Firth has spent much of his film career playing outwardly square characters, with a hint of passion smouldering away beneath the surface. Here he does pretty much the same, just with extra misery and awkwardness because of the stammer, which seems convincing enough. However, he probably deserves his Best Actor doorstop for the moments when the Prince’s pent up frustration and anger bubble to the surface, usually provoked by Logue.
Geoffrey Rush as the therapist puts in some of his least irritating work here, portraying a warm-hearted family man with a huge hint of mischief in him; he hides his personal disappointment and relishes pricking the Prince’s wounded pride.
Helena Bonham-Carter is delightful as the young Queen Mother, lively, beautiful and down-to-earth, and it’s refreshing to see her do some ordinary acting outside of one of Tim Burton’s increasingly dreary freak shows.
Michael Gambon makes the most of a relatively small role as the aging King, a hard, stern man, product of an older, more rigid era and monarchy. Guy Pearce enjoys himself as the despicable older brother, although his plummy English accent veers dangerously close to parody.
Derek Jacobi crops up as the Archbishop, the closest thing the picture has to a villain, and almost everyone is virtually flawless, in a square old-fashioned way. Apart from Timothy Spall, horrifically miscast as Winston Churchill – it’s a broad impression, and would seem more suited to an episode of “The Fast Show”.
Tom Hooper handles the material well, keeping the twee pace of the film bubbling along nicely. He doesn’t go for anything flash, and gives his actors time to explore their characters and relationships with each other. In an attempt to convey the suffocating nature of the Prince’s condition, he goes for a lot of low angled close ups, getting his lens right up Colin Firth’s nostril. It works some of the time.
Other times, it looks like the kind of shot you might go for in a film if a character has woken up in a deserted hospital, and ran outside to discover he’s the only person left on the planet.
The overall production looks very well-heeled, although in a muted, modest way – dark greys and blues are the colours of choice, and the most striking image of the entire film is the sofa in Logue’s consulting room.
“The King’s Speech” is effortlessly enjoyable, although it’s not very exciting and doesn’t really say anything about anything. I would give it four stars, except the more I thought about it afterwards, the more it angered me. This is a film where we are supposed to stand up and cheer that the King managed to overcome his speech impediment in time to announce we were going to war.
The World suffered a conflict that lasted six years, and cost the lives of tens of millions of people – and we’re supposed to feel warm inside because poor old Bertie can hold himself together for ten minutes on the radio. What a relief! I understand he was a popular figure during the war, but I found the whole concept rather tasteless. It might have seemed a little less crass if it started off with our battle weary boys stooped around a wireless, getting all inspired by the King’s words, then flashing back to that poorly little boy bullied to the point of psychological damage.
So it loses a star because of the film’s inherent thoughtlessness. Apart from that, it’s worth a watch if you’ve got nothing better to do.