The King’s Speech: the ultimate feel-good film
The King’s Speech begins on a dreary day in 1925 when the Duke of York, second son of King George V of England, prepares to make the closing speech at the British Empire Exhibition. The Duke clutches his speech, looking sick with worry, as he waits to be called to the stage. When he finally steps up to the microphone, his voice turns on him and he stands in front of a crowd of thousands, speechless, heaving with fear and choking on words that will not be said.
From the very first scene, your heart begins to ache for the King with the stammer – George VI (Colin Firth), or Bertie, as he is known to family and friends. His wife, then the Duchess of York (Helena Bonham Carter), finds him a Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), and Bertie and Lionel strike up an unlikely friendship as they battle to overcome Bertie’s tortured childhood and find him a voice that is his own. When his father passes away and his elder brother, King Edward VIII, abdicates to marry the woman he loves, Bertie, against the odds, ascends to the throne of England. Now, the stakes are even higher as the newly crowned King George VI must face not just his fears, but also an anxious nation. The film ends as it began, with a speech, this time the King’s speech, as George VI addresses the empire on radio at the start of the Second World War.
The King’s Speech is one of the most talked about films of 2010 and, with 12 nominations, a likely big winner at this month’s Academy Awards ceremony. Along with a stack of technical nominations, the film is a contender for Best Picture, Best Director (Tom Hooper), Best Actor (Firth), Best Supporting Actor (Rush) and Best Supporting Actress (Bonham Carter). More ominously, it has been produced by Harvey Weinstein, formerly of Miramax Films, who has the Midas touch as far as the golden statuette is concerned (16 nominations for Best Picture including 3 wins in a twelve-year career with Miramax).
The first thing that strikes you about the film is the profusion of bizarre characters. An eccentric BBC radio presenter gargles with whiskey before every announcement, a quack doctor with a manic gleam in his eye stuffs marbles into the Duke’s mouth in an attempt to get him to talk, and the pompous Archbishop of Canterbury (Derek Jacobi) harrumphs that a commoner cannot possibly sit in the Royal Box in Westminster Abbey for the King’s coronation. The royal family is equally caricatured: the fierce old king George V (Michael Gambon) barks at his son to “spit it out” and fix his stammering problem while his wife, and mother to King George VI, Queen Mary (Clare Bloom), is white, cold and rather unfeeling. King Edward VIII is portrayed as a shallow fool – who, when asked what he’s so busy doing, replies grandly, “kinging” –while his temptress, the evil Mrs. Wallis Simpson of Baltimore, seems sour and manipulative. A positive (and surely unintended) cartoon is Winston Churchill himself (Timothy Spall) – I almost expected him, any minute, to turn into Spall’s Wormtail from the Harry Potter series.
Nor is the historical background very convincingly portrayed. The public drama of abdication is severely glossed over and the build-up of war seems hollow and inadequate. Apart from a few flashes of Hitler making a speech (“I don’t know (what he’s saying)”, says the King, “but he seems to be saying it rather well”), the film appears to be taken by surprise when war breaks out. Christopher Hitchens has written an excellent piece on the historical inaccuracies relating to Churchill’s role in the film, particularly with respect to his close friendship with the Nazi-sympathising Edward.
Yet, amid all this exaggeration and melodrama, a remarkably warm story emerges of a friendship between two men – the King of England and his speech therapist. Through a series of meetings in a sparsely decorated consultation room, Lionel helps Bertie break down his paralyzing fear through often unconventional techniques: prancing about the room, singing songs like Swanee River and Camptown Races, and letting forth a stream of expletives. Lionel is an agreeable and irreverent chap who refuses to be cowed by the royal background of his client. Bertie takes his time to warm to the cheeky Australian. “You’re peculiar”, says the King to Lionel. “I’ll take that as a compliment”, is the quick response. Yet, they eventually become close friends and confidantes.
Colin Firth towers as the stammering King. Girls of my generation have mooned over Firth ever since he played the gloomy Mr. Darcy in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. I was around ten when I first watched that mini-series; Firth was my first crush and I’ve had a soft spot for him ever since. Even so, I was astounded by his wonderful performance as a homosexual college professor in A Single Man – an Oscar-nominated turn which lost out to Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart (probably because half the Academy hadn’t even seen A Single Man).
As the gentle and sad Bertie, Firth is excellent. In his own restrained way, he brings to life the gut-wrenching terror that renders Bertie speechless and the hot shame of failure that follows. Rush is smart, funny and engaging as Lionel. Bonham-Carter, too, strikes the perfect note as the loving wife – supportive and witty, and not beyond a bit of low gossip at the expense of Mrs. Wallis.
However, both Rush and Bonham Carter are probably too delicate and subtle for the Academy – not when there are roles of drug addicts and murderous outlaws waiting to be awarded. Firth, however, is probably going to bring this one home. The King’s Speech doesn’t suffer from the obscurity of A Single Man and here Firth plays not just a historical figure (and the Academy loves those), but also one with a physical disability. It seems too good to be true, and if Firth wins, in my opinion, it would be a very well deserved victory.
This is more than I can say for Tom Hooper’s nomination as Best Director. Frankly, I thought his directorial style was a little over the top (Beethoven blaring during the eponymous King’s speech) and vastly predictable: his fellow nominees in both David Fincher (Social Network) and the Coen brothers (True Grit) are far more nuanced (read about why Lekha picks Fincher for the win here).
Ultimately, The King’s Speech is a feel-good bromance between Bertie and Lionel and it is practically impossible to not like it. Will it win the Best Picture Oscar? If it does, it wouldn’t be on a list of the best of best picture award-winners of all time. Actually, it wouldn’t even be close. But it remains a delightful little movie with genuine heart.