Leading all the others with 12 nominations, Tom Hooper’s film telling the story of Britain’s previous monarch King George VI, became a somewhat surprising Oscar front-runner. Its award success translated into a very healthy international theatre run and considerable box-office returns for what is after all a small and very definite, classic British drama. The tale of perseverance over disability as well as the period setting is of course exactly the type of genre the Academy loves to reward but to bash “The King’s Speech” on those grounds would be grossly unfair and a particular injustice to the performances of its central players. As with Stephen Frears’ “The Queen” four years earlier, the film is extremely accomplished in its look and feel, exuding visual, technical and atmospheric perfection from every frame, an art for which British films are rightly successful again and again.
In the late 1930s, Albert Duke of York (Colin Firth) is required to speak at public functions and more frequently over the new wireless radio technology to his people. However, the Prince struggles with a persistent stammer which, although not a problem in his daily life, renders him speechless at the most crucial of moments. Desperate after the failure of every known treatment, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) turns to the unconventional methods and highly eccentric personality of Lionel Logue played by Geoffrey Rush. Controversial from the outset and much to Albert’s reluctance (and indeed lack of self-belief), Logue sets about curing the disability. The relationship of the two wildly different men will be tested not only by the Prince’s imminent ascension to the throne of England as King George VI but by the looming World War II when the King will have to rally his people through speechmaking. As these period drama go, and in terms of plot the screenplay written by David Seidler never strays far from its presumed path, instead working the means for the cast to display their creativity. A perversion of humour perhaps, but the entirety of “The King’s Speech” is extraordinarily witty, its dialogues pitch perfect and in the hands of Tom Hooper, result in a coherent flow of storytelling that is quietly brilliant and too often absent in the scripts that make the rounds in Hollywood today.
In the follow-up hype, most praise was lauded upon the central performance of Colin Firth who, for the second year running (after “A Single Man”) churned out Oscar-worthy acting, thus firmly evolving from typecast Hugh Grant-esque bumble to serious character actor. Without any doubt, the success of the film hinges largely on his superb portrayal. Not only is his voice remarkably similar to the real monarch’s, his inability to articulate himself and frequent angry outbursts go far beyond a simple if sympathetic recreation but enthrals us and has us willing the formation of every strained syllable. Not granted as much mention, but equally superb is Geoffrey Rush in a role that is (take note Academy) as vital and leading as Firth’s. Though there are traces of his Barbossa to be found in Rush’s comic and out-of-place methods and quirks (particularly as an aspiring actor in the film), it is ultimately his off-beat charm that may seem incredulous but is key to holding proceedings on track. Other great British character actors line the supporting positions: Helena Bonham Carter generally enriches every part she plays but this is one of her best in years. Bit parts by Guy Pearce and Michael Gambon as Kings Edward VIII and George V respectively add further gravitas to the acting ensemble. Less convincing is Timothy Spall utilised as a purely comic Winston Churchill who, while providing some laughs, lacks the dramatic weight possessed by the other characters. A little lost amongst all the acting focus will be the cinematography, art-direction and costume design, all perfect to the last. As an exercise in stylistic accuracy, it’s every cinephile’s dream.
It’s ironic perhaps that a Frenchman has become the expert at scoring British films like “The King’s Speech” but Alexandre Desplat has once again delivered some of his trademark music to underline the film. Always incredibly elegant in his use of the orchestra, the composer has certainly fulfilled expectations if not exceeded them, utilising a familiar sparse approach of soft strings and classically inclined piano. All of his scores are incredibly hard to fault for their sheer beauty even if they do lack the sort of thematic development that constitutes a truly great score. Much publicised were his efforts to obtain the original 1930s royal microphones which do lend the soundtrack great authenticity. However, Desplat never strays from his comfort zone, leaving it instead to the classical maestros, Brahms, Mozart and particularly Beethoven to underscore the most pivotal scenes in the film (some of which is source music). On the album as well, it’s the classical pieces that will leave a mark on the listener. It’s a well-rounded combination but it would have been much more interesting to see the composer tackle these great moments himself and deliver more of the haunting beauty heard in his effort for “Twilight: New Moon,” a film that did not deserve such elegance.
Predictable at face value, “The King’s Speech” succeeds through it’s clever screenplay and the performances of its entire cast. Firth is outstanding but no more so than Geoffrey Rush. Together, this makes for a film that you will want to see several times over to fully appreciate. Highly recommended.
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