King's Speech, The (United Kingdom, 2010)December 18, 2010
The King's Speech delivers solid drama with a rousing climax - a fully satisfying and uplifting period piece that achieves its dramatic potential without sacrificing historical accuracy. Unless you count Hitler, who is seen from afar, the narrative is villain-free, allowing the focus to be on the internal and interpersonal struggles of the characters - a more rewarding approach than when a bad guy is invented to fill the need for a conventional conflict. Even though it is set against the backdrop of mid-20th century British royalty, there are no barriers to mainstream accessibility. The wealth of acting mined by director Tom Hooper may represent the best ensemble not only of this year but of the last several years. Big and small, there are some astounding performances here.
The film opens in 1925. The man who will become King George VI (Colin Firth) is now merely Prince Albert. His official title is the Duke of York and, because he's the second son of King George V (Michael Gambon), he is not expected to ascend to the throne because that role will fall to his older brother, Prince Edward (Guy Pearce). A life away from the relentless attention of Buckingham Palace is suitable for Albert and his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), who do not desire to be king and queen. And there's another issue: royalty in the age of radio presents a unique challenge for Albert, who is afflicted with a stammer that hampers his ability to speak publically (and, at times, privately). In an attempt to be free of this impediment, he visits Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist known for unorthodox methods. Logue's importance in Albert's life escalates when circumstances conspire to make him the king of England at a time when the storm clouds of World War II are gathering on the horizon.
Although The King's Speech is primarily a drama and can be seen as a buddy movie and an instance of the underdog triumphant, there are plenty of humorous moments. None of the comedy is overdone or out-of-place. One can easily imagine, for example, the amusing awkwardness that would affect a middle-class wife upon discovering the Duchess of York sitting at her modest dining room table. The King's Speech is as positive and life-affirming as any recent movie. Like a sports figure who overcomes incredible odds to score the winning points, King George VI is presented as a man who, through sheer force of will and because of the trust he places in Lionel, is able to surmount the obstacle that blocks his path. Too frequently, we leave movies largely unmoved by the experience; The King's Speech sends viewers home with smiles on their faces and lilts in their hearts.
Rarely have we observed so many fantastic performances in one movie. First and foremost is Colin Firth who may win the Oscar (and, if he doesn't, he should). Perhaps the best way to describe the way Firth inhabits the character is to recall Helen Mirren's astounding turn in The Queen. It's the same sort of thing - a man who sheds his skin and crawls inside that of another so fully that we believe in the character. Geoffrey Rush, with his hangdog face, is the perfect foil for Firth. Rush gives Lionel a false bravado to cover his inner uncertainty about serving such a distinguished client. Beneath the seemingly confident exterior, we see the softer, gentler man. Firth and Rush share strong chemistry, which is critical in any buddy film, irrespective of how offbeat it may be. There's also no shortage of chemistry between Firth and Helena Bonham Carter, whose Elizabeth is a delight. She's sharp-witted and whip-smart but capable of great caring and humanity.
The secondary cast is populated by notable names giving sterling performances. There's Timothy Spall, whose interpretation of Winston Churchill is more than an exercise in mimicry. Derek Jacobi, who played a famous stammerer as the title character in I, Claudius, is the cranky and propriety-conscious Archbishop Lang. The royal family is filled out by Michael Gambon as George V, Claire Bloom as his wife, Queen Mary, and Guy Pearce as Edward, whose infatuation with a twice-divorced American woman creates problems for his reign. Finally, Jennifer Ehle's participation as Lionel's wife allows her an opportunity to be reunited with her Pride and Prejudice co-star, Firth. This is the first time they have shared the screen since that monumental mini-series.
The final scene, which gives the movie its title, represents not only the climax of the story but the moment in which all the elements come together - Firth and Rush's acting; the classical strains of the score; the stark simplicity of the production design (the room in which the speech is given is functional and unadorned). Hooper orchestrates everything with flawless diction in his cinematic language. The microphone looms not merely as an aid to voice amplification and recording, but as an implacable enemy - the faceless foe George VI must defeat by exorcising his own personal demons. It's an amazing moment.
The MPAA, in its infinite wisdom, has chosen to saddle The King's Speech with an R rating, believing there are too many "fucks." Jack Nicholson got away with 2.5 gratuitous "fucks" in How Do You Know, but that inferior picture survived with a PG-13. Admittedly, there are more than 2.5 "fucks" in The King's Speech (as are there in this now R-rated review), but they are anything but gratuitous. They serve a purpose within the context of speech therapy. The MPAA has once again shown its narrow-mindedness. Those "fucks" are the only reason this is R-rated. There's no sex or violence, just one word spoken a few too many times.
The King's Speech is everything a good movie should be. When the two hour running time expires, many will wish there were more minutes to come. With its deceptively complex drama, skillful direction and polished screenplay, and top-notch acting, The King's Speech illustrates by example how disappointingly lacking so many recent would-be dramas have been. This is a deeply human story that touches the heart and inspires the audience not only in relation to the characters and their circumstances but as a reminder that, in the dreary muddle of 2010's mediocrity, a motion picture like this can still make it to theaters.
King's Speech, The (United Kingdom, 2010)
Cast: Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Gambon, Anthony Andrews, Timothy Spall, Guy Pearce, Derek Jacobi, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush, Claire Bloom
Screenplay: David Seidler
Cinematography: Danny Cohen
Music: Alexandre Desplat
U.S. Distributor: The Weinstein Company