At the end of 2010, with royal watchers going mad about the engagement of William and Kate, a movie about William's great grandfather seems timely. And Colin Firth watchers are certainly swirling around the possibilities that his portrayal of King George VI in The King's Speech could make this, the second of two notable back to back performances (including last year's The Single Man), his year to win the Academy Award for best actor.
The King's Speech begins in 1925, when Prince Albert, Duke of York, must step in for his father (Michael Gambon as King George V, whose health is failing) and give the annual speech to the people, which takes place in Wimbley Stadium. The scene successfully depicts a man filled with shame at his lack of control over his stammering and a solemn crowd filled with pity and disgust for him. The eyes of the people (very effective extras) firmly conveys the fact that the people simply do not want this sort of weakness in a royal figure.
After the opening scene, the time period shifts to 1934 to a pre-WWII England – one that will soon lose their ailing King. Guy Pearce (best known for Memento and L.A. Confidential) plays the son who will be King. David (who will be King Edward after his father dies) is everything his brother isn't, and Pearce adds a nice flourish to the handsome boyish playboy who will shirk his duties to marry a morally questionable (twice-divorced) American socialite. As the second born son, Albert ("Bertie" to his family and close friends) has been made to feel second best by his father and the people, which clearly does nothing to help him in the confidence department. Gambon is effective in playing a King who is almost cruel regarding the failings of his second son. But Albert is a devoted husband and father (to the future Queen Elizabeth II, England's current Queen, and her sister Margaret) and a responsible naval officer and duke who understands his place in the hierarchy, and he never had designs on the throne.
Helena Bonham Carter is sassy and loyal as Elizabeth, wife of Albert (and future beloved "Queen Mum"). She is the royal who decides to throw caution to the wind and find her husband help, which goes beyond the palace protocol of following their advisors in such matters. This determination leads her to the unconventional Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who bills himself as a speech therapist and doctor, and fancies himself a Shakespearean actor. Only one of those titles turns out to be true by the movies end. Another good wife, played by Broadway vet Jennifer Ehle, is Lionel's partner, who delights when she finally finds out who her husband's mystery patient is.
The movie has an authentic historic reality to it (England is appropriately dreary and the costumes are divine) and director Tom Hooper is building a reputation for excellent historic dramas, as past credits include the well-received mini-series productions of Elizabeth I with Helen Mirren, and John Adams with Paul Giammati. He obviously has a knack for bringing real figures to life. In this film, he also has a way with camera angles that zoom in for the money shots: Colin Firth doesn't need much help with showing the utter angst, shame and frustration his speech causes him, but the director helps him along with the intrusive camera and it's slow motion angles, which places the audience right there with the struggle for word formation and makes them anticipate every word. Hooper chooses to use chilling footage of a rising Hitler, which helps set the mood England was in at the time and stresses the importance of having a King who is not just concerned about himself, but is prepared to be the steady rock that will see England through a war that Churchill correctly predicted would be long. But this footage is also the perfect juxtaposition of two men and their speech abilities. The irony is that the one with evil intent is a powerful speaker, and the one who has his heart in the right place struggles to deliver his sane message.
Rush and Firth enjoy a lovely chemistry in this movie, as do Bonham Carter and the two men. Lionel and Bertie have an unconventional relationship that builds and turns out to be more than either man expected. When they first meet, Bertie intends to keep their meetings civilized and impersonal, which is how he is used to dealing with others, but that's not how the eccentric Lionel works – nor has he gotten the memo on how commoners are supposed to treat royals. The "doctor's" methods are loopy and silly, and Rush enjoys the play (which includes having the future King rolling around on the floor and swear like a sailor). Bertie gets to loosen up in the private home of this therapist, which he never really is allowed to on his own soil, and Firth is equally adept at embracing the absurd as he is in showing the shame and angst. Both men are rewarded by this relationship, which turned out to last until the King's death. Their relationship begins before Bertie has any inkling that he will need to step up when his brother decides that marrying Wallis Simpson is more important than being King, and continues to evolve as the importance of Bertie's speech is heightened with his impending coronation, resulting in a surprising level of trust.
The movie begins and ends with a speech, and the fascinating relationships are nestled in between. The two speeches are very different and Firth and Hooper take the audience from point A to point B effortlessly. Royal watchers and everyone else will find this rewarding story to be a real insight to the pressures of the throne and the judgments of the people, which still exists today.
Rating: FOUR BONES
Release Date: December 25th, 2010
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, Jennifer Ehle, Timothy Spall, and Derek Jacobi
Director: Tom Hooper
Writer: David Seidler