The King's Speech, 2010.
Directed by Tom Hooper.
Starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Guy Pearce and Timothy Spall.
Plagued by a stammer, Britain's Prince Albert strives to overcome his speech impediment in order to rally his country for war with Germany.
I stupidly didn’t book a seat for my first attempt to watch The King’s Speech on the Saturday of its opening weekend. We had to go and see 127 Hours instead, which isn’t the easiest going film for a date. The Tuesday afternoon, almost a fortnight later, fared only a little better. The screen was rapidly filling up to capacity – for a 2.25pm showing on a Tuesday. Not by rowdy teens or romantic couples, but by an elderly, creaking horde. So I was pushed a little to the back and a little to the left of where I usually sit, and surrounded on all sides by pensioners and pensioners-in-waiting. But aren’t we all?
Rather than being annoying, there was a certain charm to all this. This film has found huge resonance with the British public, and only the deeply cynical can deny the romance of it all. The King’s Speech deals with events still in living memory, yet it is essentially a period piece – possibly the most recent a period piece can be (any later and it would be a ‘war film’), as it somehow feels shackled to the Victorian costume drama. The pensioners on all sides of me could have very well experienced the period details, quaint nostalgia and historic events first hand. My grandfather was born in 1930. He would have been nine at the film’s conclusion. I doubt many can remember what being nine was like, but I’m sure they can recall what the 1930s were like, just as those of us in our 20s can remember the 90s in a Fresh-Prince-esque haze of clashing colours. It appears as though the Academy shares these sentiments, preferring The King’s Speech’s past to The Social Network’s uncanny present for the Best Picture, Director and Actor Oscars. The King’s Speech is a period piece from living memory – a memory undoubtedly shared by many in front of the screens in which it is projected. Being amongst such collective age and experience is really quite humbling.
The King’s Speech is a very good film. The sort that makes you choke up in misty eyed nostalgia for a time of which you were never even a part. When stiff upper lips and smart hats were standard fare. One is connected to those apparels through the history books in school and archive footage on television. The nostalgia, like most nostalgia, has a longing ache to it. It arguably depicts the last era when Britain was internationally regarded as Great– limping a little from World War 1, but not yet crippled by its sequel.
If a film is so closely linked to themes of British pride, it’s probably best to cast a national treasure as the protagonist. Colin Firth is quite superb as King George VI (Bertie), and will most likely be rewarded for his portrayal. However, one must not overlook the other performance that contributes so significantly to the film – Geoffrey Rush as Bertie’s speech therapist and antithesis, Lionel Logue. Because, fundamentally, The King’s Speech is a buddy movie.
There are little thrills to be had at the period detail and recognisable faces (Timothy Spall chewing away as Winston Churchill), but the true satisfaction comes from the class-differing relationship between Bertie and Logue. Bertie’s stammer is chronic, which the film effectively conveys in its opening scene – a speech to a stadium of people for the British Exhibition and, slightly more intimidating, the millions listening around the world on radio. According to some surveys, the majority of people are more terrified of public speaking than their own death. Most of us are familiar with the crushing stage fright. The dry throat and mental stalling, the unbearable heat on the back of the neck – Firth manages to stutter this all without sounding comedic, a trap into which speech impediments often fall.
Bertie’s anguish is ever present in his contorted face and closed expressions. The eyes sometimes let a little out, like a glimmer of hope or love, but mostly stay stern and angry. In comparison, Logue’s features are an open window, the curtains drawn back with the sun pouring through. A failed actor and Australian immigrant, Logue works as an experimental speech therapist. His techniques are far removed from the ancient exercises (marbles in the mouth) used by the therapists to whom Bertie is accustomed. Desperate to help her husband, Helena Bonham Carter (the future Queen Mother) goes to Logue for help. However, Logue requires absolute equality with Bertie for his unique therapy to work. Bertie, not because he is a spiteful man, but because things are just not done that way, refuses such demands. So maybe it’s more of a class-clash, buddy movie.
The coming of war is only ever a background murmur, yet it seeps the film’s otherwise unimportant narrative – treating a stammer –in historic significance. The murmur becomes more anxious as the film progresses, when it becomes apparent that Bertie will become King, and that he must address the nation on the eve of war. Imagine a stuttering monarch against the aggressive staccatos of Hitler.
Bertie’s debilitating stutter is not just conveyed by Firth’s performance, but by the deep-focused lens and large interiors of the film itself. Space is a very important part of The King’s Speech as its framing is consistently used to isolate characters within the screen, trapping them in a room or wall. Consequently, objects appear either further apart in the focused, long shots and completely alien to each other in the shallow close-ups (like the blurry microphone that obscures Bertie in the film’s opening scene). There are two great examples of how this can have contrary effects in The King’s Speech; firstly, of an overwhelming isolation; secondly, of intense intimacy when it is abandoned.
Before Bertie’s brother has abdicated the throne to be with his (twice-married) American girlfriend, Wallis Simpson, Guy Pearce hosts a party for his friends and family. The influence of Simpson has made it a very relaxed affair, not what the other Royals, dressed in formal attire, were expecting. It is during this scene that Guy Pearce first displays the cruel taunting of Bertie’s stutter of which had only previously been hinted. Although only childish, the mocking is undoubtedly mean, made worse by our strong identification with Bertie thus far. There is a shot of the two brothers at the side of the door to where the party is being held. It is tall and long, dwarfing Bertie in its size. After the spiteful mocking, Pearce leaves him, walking into the party and popping a bottle of champagne. The cork bounces off a wall and down onto the ground, rolling back towards us where Bertie stands alone. Those inside the party are ecstatic, cheery and laughing, listening to music and occasionally dancing. And then there is Bertie, standing outside the room slumped against the wall. No one can see him and he can’t see party. Only we can juxtapose the two simultaneously. Bertie, despite regally dressed in a kilt and jacket, becomes a child, the one teased and laughed at by all the others. Rarely has a man been framed so alone.
But shortly after his father’s death, Bertie runs to the only non-royal friend he knows – Lionel Logue, his speech therapist. Logue, surprised at Bertie turning up unannounced, but affectionate enough not to show it, offers a cup of tea. A whiskey would suit him better, Bertie replies. This is one of the sole instances where Bertie talks of his childhood, not indulgently, but with hurt restraint. Remarkably, for a character that has hitherto been so pent-up, his sudden release feels wholly naturalistic. And so Bertie and Logue sit, this future King and Australian amateur actor, share a drink, and talk. But the dialogue is filmed far more conventionally than the empty frames of before and a comforting tempo develops between its shot/reverse shot structure. The warmth comes from the closer framing of each character. This intimacy is made all the more poignant in a film full of cold and vast interiors. Logue and Bertie are not just becoming closer emotionally, but also perceptively, to the audience, they are together.
Looking at The King’s Speech alongside The Damned United, Tom Hooper’s only other theatrical film (although he has a considerable body of work for television), one can see similarities in their visual styles; of man-made interiors - rooms, palaces, and football stadiums – which dwarf the characters that inhabit them. David Thompson wrote that Hooper “seems to have no visual style”, but this was before The King’s Speech’s release and his Best Director Oscar. Did he deserve it? Maybe, but not as much as David Fincher for The Social Network. The Academy does tend to operate a “swings and roundabouts” policy for empty-handed directors though.
Hooper may be without a substantial oeuvre to assess yet, but already he shows a consistency in his visual style. Thematically, too, of real stories from history and enduring male relationships. Perhaps cinema is freeing Hooper from the ‘house-style’ of television to assert his own vision through film.
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