Film Review – The King’s Speech
Most of us know the feeling of having no choice but to perform a duty you feel you’re ill-equipped for; luckily for most of us, our tasks aren’t quite so high profile as those of a member of a royal family, and our failures don’t matter to a nation. In The King’s Speech, for Prince Albert, Duke of York, the pressure to overcome a prominent stammer is bad enough when performing princely duties. But, as our title suggests, his duties are about to intensify.
Colin Firth is, frankly, amazing at not sounding like Colin Firth in his role as the prince, who is known as Bertie to his family. At our outset, he’s second in line for the throne behind his older brother Edward (Guy Pearce). Though his stammer seems a minor inconvenience at most in his private life, it worsens to the point of causing severe embarrassment when he must speak in public, as is often expected of one of his station. We learn that this is the last of several “imperfections” Bertie’s been forced to fight against in his life, and the one he can’t quite figure out how to conquer.
Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), hides a fair amount of pluck behind her proper demeanor. When it seems her husband has exhausted the available supply of speech teachers, she reaches further. She visits the odd, secretary-less office of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who proves unwilling to adjust his methodology, even if his patient is the Duke of York. They will go by first names, they will talk about personal matters, and if it seems helpful, by golly, they will sing and dance. As one might imagine, this is at first met with resistance by Bertie, but eventually we are treated to several entertaining scenes of the proper royal bending to the instruction of the unconventional Australian therapist.
It won’t all be fun and games, though. Bertie faces some very real set-backs in his progress when he’s faced with the reality that his father will not survive much longer, and his brother is determined to marry an American divorcée—a decision that means abdicating. Bertie will be King, and the pressure on him mounts as we approach the film’s title scene, when he must speak to the entire British Empire, and the world, and confirm that they indeed face war with Germany yet again.
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are proven great actors, and they play enormously well off of each other here in both the light-hearted and the heavy moments. Portraits of unlikely friendships across class barriers are not uncommon in film, and this one does hit a lot of familiar beats—especially in the times and ways that frustrations erupt. But genuine chemistry between incredibly talented actors and much clever wordplay can make up for miles of slightly predictable situations. And while David Seidler’s screenplay follows familiar rhythms, within this structure, many smaller surprises come up within individual scenes. These moments are, again, brought about by the superb dialogue delivered by superb actors.
In addition to making us care greatly for Bertie’s predicament in particular, the film and Firth also manage to effectively display the more general thanklessness of being a member of modern royalty. It’s a job that comes with much of the pressure but little of the agency that it did in previous centuries, and it’s not one I would want at all. In a small, beautiful scene, Bertie and Elizabeth briefly acknowledge the life they’d envisioned without the pressures of the throne. I hope it’s the moment that puts Firth over the top for his Oscar.
Director Tom Hooper has created a film that is beautiful and meticulous, but resists the typical period drama technique of basking in the sweeping grandeur of the realms of the rich. He films Logue’s office and family apartment with the same scope he uses for Bertie and Elizabeth’s home. Though he offers many interesting, detailed tableaux, the cinematography and editing seem to reflect the way the characters feel in their surroundings rather than how we the audience might observe them. It’s a clever way to both de-emphasize the potentially overwhelming theme of the class chasm between our two main characters, and to ratchet up the immediacy of the events for the viewer.
The film’s two hours pass quickly, and I still wanted more time with tertiary characters such as Lionel’s sons, King George V (the marvelous Michael Gambon), and, most especially, Elizabeth. I’ve never thought of Helena Bonham Carter as one of my favorite actors, but between this display of faithful love and her extremely contrasting role as the crazy and violent Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter films, she’s climbing my list. Guy Pearce, too, does nice work, and I could imagine an entire parallel film following his adventures.
Truly, there’s nothing quite like a British period piece that showcases a wealth of talented actors in amazing clothes, and The King’s Speech scores good marks in all of the areas you’d want from such a film. It’s also one of the few films I can think of with such creative use of profanity that is also appropriate to watch with one’s parents. I think its crowd-pleasing nature will help it do very well come Oscar time.
Final Grade: A-