Talking a Good Game
(The King’s Speech, Tom Hooper, UK, 2010, 118 mins)
Awards season is well and truly upon us. It’s that time of the year when the big hitters roll out the usual selection of historical epics, weighty emotional dramas and hard hitting political thrillers in an effort to grab the much sought after Oscar glory, or failing that something rubbish, like a BAFTA. Leading the pack in this year’s Golden Globe nominations (usually a fairly strong indication for the Academy Awards) is The King’s Speech, Tom Hooper’s account of the unlikely ascension to the throne of King George VI (Colin Firth) who had to overcome a serious stammer in order to take on his responsibilities as King.
The film opens with Albert, at this point the Duke of York, due to give a speech at the Empire Exhibition at Wembley stadium in 1925. When he approaches the microphone he freezes, stuttering through his first few words before stopping entirely, unable to utter another sound. Albert is humiliated, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) is heart-broken, and decides something must be done to cure her husband’s affliction. Step in Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) a speech therapist who is confident he will find the Duke’s voice, if His Royal Highness is willing to play by Logue’s rules. Much of the film is focused on the relationship between Albert and Logue, their sessions, their private lives and Albert’s gradual improvement in the realm of public speaking. However Albert’s situation becomes more serious as it becomes clear that his brother King Edward VIII (Guy Pierce) intends to abdicate the throne in order to marry the twice divorced Wallis Simpson. Albert must now learn to speak for himself, in order that he can speak for the nation.
Films about the Royal family tend to be rather tiresome affairs, a lot of naval gazing in wonderfully furnished interiors, or flag flying celebrations of just how bloody great we Brits are. Thankfully The King’s Speech avoids these pit-falls, offering a well balanced reflection on what it is to be royalty. Hooper’s Royal family are a cold, detached and emotionally unavailable group, because the rigorously structured nature of their lives and responsibilities mean that it is necessary for them to be so. Royalty is presented as a burden rather than a privilege, not just for Albert but for those around him as well. His brother cannot cope with the burden of being King because to do so would mean having to spend his life without the woman he loves. This is well portrayed by Guy Pierce, who brings out Edward’s confident, cocky nature as well as his fragility in the face of adversity. Helena Bonham Carter’s Elizabeth is portrayed as a private, caring woman for whom the royal lifestyle was never the attraction of Albert, but the one thing that initially put her off marrying him. Bonham Carter brings out Elizabeth’s love for her husband, as well as her well practiced airs and graces in a lifestyle she has been completely at ease with.
However despite an abundance of strong supporting players, the success of The King’s Speech was always going to hinge on the performances of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, and it is for that very reason the film is so successful. Rush’s Lionel Logue is a witty, stubborn and yet thoughtful and supportive friend to Albert, his irreverence (which provides some of the film’s best comic moments) is not born out of disrespect but of a keen ability to get inside Albert’s head, to tackle the problem as a mental, rather than a physical defect. Colin Firth was unlucky not to receive an Oscar last year for his performance in A Single Man; he will be downright cursed to suffer the same fate this year. His performance as Albert is superb, not only in the clicks and ticks of his speech impediment, but in his faltering smile, his unconfident shuffle, which portray not a man whose life was made difficult by a stammer, but who was given a stammer as a result of his difficult life. Albert is a man looking for warm human relationships in a family which subjugates them out of a sense of duty. Lionel Logue provides not only a therapist but a friend; Albert’s triumph is not one of medical science, but of self belief.
The King’s Speech is not without its failings; some of the exchanges between Albert and his family are overly sentimental, and Timothy Spall is woefully miscast as Winston Churchill, standing out like a pantomime character in a serious play. These are minor flaws however, and overall the film is a heart-warming, engaging and fabulously performed piece of cinema, which will richly deserve all of the awards inevitably coming its way.