'The King's Speech' (UK Release: 7 Jan '11)
Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: Colin Firth, Helena Bonham-Carter, Geoffrey Rush, Guy Pearce
In director Tom Hooper's last feature, 'The Damned United', we witnessed Michael Sheen's Brian Clough prance around as if he was the King of England. In 'The King's Speech', we find Colin Firth's Prince Albert thrust into that very role, despite an afflicting vocal condition. The significant difference being that while Clough would have relished a chance to cement his self-acknowledged superiority over the masses, Prince Albert never sought the throne.
'The King's Speech' follows the ascension of "Bertie" as he becomes King George VI and bids to overcome his stammer, with the help of a speech therapist as well as his supportive wife, the future Queen Mother (Helena Bonham-Carter). Perhaps surprisingly, the film is based on the actual events surrounding the Prince's elevation, scripted magnificently by David Seidler.
This a film that captures the King's struggles, both internal and external. Bertie visibly fights against his stammer, while struggling also with his reluctance to become King, once Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) abdicates. There are brotherly struggles between Pearce and Firth's characters but he must also battle against the disapproval and disappointment of his father, King George V (Michael Gambon). The largest struggle is an external one, as the King prepares himself for the looming Nazi threat and the beginning of World War II, signalled by the speech which the film's title refers to.
However, the film centres around the King and his Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, played superbly by Geoffrey Rush. There are battles here too, which in turn highlight the psychological struggles that have exacerbated Bertie's condition. Yet there is also great success and we take immense pleasure in seeing how Logue's unconventional techniques steadily improve Bertie's faltering voice.
The relationship between Logue and Bertie encapsulates much of the film. It is one of supreme comedy and touching drama. The manner in which Bertie's prejudice of the common man (and a colonial, to boot) is eroded, and replaced by close friendship, is a joy to watch. The comedic elements in Seidler's script that frequent this dynamic are to be particularly applauded, and are delivered adeptly by Rush and Firth.
It's unsurprising then that both actors, as well as Bonham-Carter, have received plaudits for their performances. In particular, Firth deserves to be awarded Best Actor at the forthcoming Academy Awards, especially having been overlooked for his powerful performance in 'A Single Man'. Awards are also deserved for the costume/production design and art direction teams for their supreme recreation of the inter-war period and their evoking of an appropriate sense of majesty throughout the film.
Admittedly, 'The King's Speech' itself stutters at times. Punchlines occasionally fall flat, most notably in a scene between Firth and Gambon, where the jokes are glossed over to promote the melodrama of their conflict. The awkwardness of Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill is distracting, although his look of steely determination as the King delivers his speech positively contrasts the sedate shots of everyday folk staring at radios, looking pensive. But these weaker moments are few and far between.
Seidler and Hooper have crafted a film that presents the monarchy not as unassailable gods, with a divine right to superiority but fallible, flawed human beings who struggle under the burden of a nation's expectations. Their success, with an indebtedness to Colin Firth, is in making the King a sympathetic character. The end result is a film which is both wonderfully moving and witty, rising far above its period setting.
'The King's Speech' is out on wide release in UK cinemas now. Read the "hilarious" account of my experience at the film's European premiere here.