A royal bro-mantic costume drama
Image: Momentum Pictures
At first glance The King’s Speech looks like the typical British Oscar-baiting film about royalty. A stunning cast, impeccable costumes, cut-glass RP accents, some arguing about duty and responsibility. In other words, a film guaranteed to pick up awards but that may be a little lifeless. It’s a pleasure to report that The King’s Speech has all the positive qualities of our very British subgenre, but also that it has warmth to spare.
It’s the early 1930s, and the spread of the wireless means that the royals are expected to deliver speeches to the nation. This is bad news for Prince Albert (Colin Firth), who suffers from a terrible stutter. His wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) enlists the help of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian speech therapist. Bertie and Lionel slowly develop a tentative friendship, but when King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) abdicates, Albert finds himself thrust into a spotlight that he is not ready for.
Director Tom Hooper’s previous film The Damned United arguably focused on a platonic love story between two men, and the same theme runs through his latest movie. The King’s Speech is at its best when it puts Firth and Rush in a room together, with Rush’s quick wit and easy going nature contrasting nicely with Firth’s short temper and reserve. It’s also here that the script’s origins as a play are clear, but this isn’t a negative point.
Films like these aren’t often a showcase for a director’s visual eye, but Hooper brings a great deal of energy with some really excellent camera work. Tight close ups reinforce awkwardness, as do shots from Bertie’s perspective. He also has an impressive determination to keep the camera moving where possible, which opens the world of the film up and helps dispel any lingering staginess.
Colin Firth is once again in the running for Best Actor at the Oscars, and deservedly so. As Bertie’s refusal to discuss his life is slowly whittled away by Logue, Firth invests the historical figure with a great deal of humanity. The scene in which he recounts a childhood trauma in sing-song to Logue in order to avoid stuttering is heartbreaking, as is the look on his face when he returns devastated from his coronation only to have his daughters curtsey to him rather than hug him.
The double act is nicely completed by Rush, who brings warmth and humour while keeping the character grounded and believable. Bonham-Carter has a lot of fun with the straight-talking Queen Elizabeth, and her on-screen relationship with Firth is both touching and believable. The rest of the cast is rounded out by a superb collection of thesps. Michael Gambon plays the tough King Edward VI, Claire Bloom is his icy Queen Mary, Derek Jacobi is the officious Archbishop, and Timothy Spall does a great Winston Churchill. Pearce is excellent as the vacuous and selfish Edward VIII, and Jennifer Ehle (Pride and Prejudice) does nicely in a small role as Lionel’s wife.
While the film moves along very smoothly, it does occasionally feel a little too structured. Bertie and Lionel talk, they fall out, Bertie has a bad experience speaking publicly or has a personal setback, and he goes back to Lionel. This structure is essentially repeated throughout the film, but the whole thing is so beautifully made and acted that flaws such as predictability barely matter. There’s been some controversy raised over whether Bertie’s stammer was as bad as Hooper depicts it here, but since when has any film based on a true story been entirely accurate? There’s nothing particularly ground-breaking here, but there doesn’t need to be. A good story very well told.
The cast are superb, and Hooper delivers a well-written, well-directed costume drama with heart. What’s not to like?