Saturday, February 18, 2012
100 Movies - No. 50: The King's Speech
Drama, Biography, History, 118 minutes
Directed by Tom Hooper
Starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter
Have you ever been involved in public speaking? Even a small audience can be enough to take you out of your comfort zone. Imagine that you stammer and you're required to speak live to more than a quarter of the Earth's population. Throw in the fact that your audience is frightened due to the impending war against Hitler's Germany. A confident, optimistic and inspirational speech is essential.
That's the situation King George VI found himself in.
Historical dramas generally bore me. I'm not particularly interested in the royal family, despite living in the UK for the first 43 years of my life, and have no love for them at all. But for some reason, this works.
Tom Hooper directed the excellent The Damned United, but this is even better. He chose to shoot most of the film in dark rooms rather than focus on the potential splendor offered by Buckingham Palace. Apart from a scene inside Westminster Abbey, most of the rooms are drab. The story is character-driven and works because of the acting rather than the setting.
Colin Firth gives a brilliant performance as King George VI, although he isn't king when the film begins; he's the Duke of York. We see him stumble over an early speech in the 1920s and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (Carter), seeks a speech therapist to help him overcome his impediment.
Doesn't that sound boring?
She finds Lionel Logue (Rush), who has a practice in London's famous Harley Street, and forces her husband to see him. Rush is great as the Australian therapist and supplies much of the humor in the film. The two initially enter into a doctor/patient relationship and eventually become friends.
If I had read that premise without knowing anything else about the story, there's no way you could have convinced me I would care about the characters or the outcome. But the quality of the acting overcomes all that and I did end up caring about a historical speech delivered by a monarch in whom I had zero interest. That says something about the power of this film.
Fans of the Harry Potter movies will be familiar with Michael Gambon, Timothy Spall and Helena Bonham Carter. It's interesting to see them here in serious roles.
The driving force of the story is the friendship between Logue and the future king. Indeed, Logue insists that the two function as equals and calls the Duke Bertie. He apparently has little respect for the monarchy and makes fun of it throughout. Strangely, I'm reminded of The Shawshank Redemption. The two main characters are in a difficult situation and yet manage to form an unlikely friendship, with each sustaining the other.
We are shown early attempts by renowned physicians to cure the Duke's stammer, but no progress is made. The Duke's wife finds Logue and arranges an appointment. Logue's methods are unconventional to say the least and provide some of the film's humor. It's a big step for the Duke to trust this irreverent foreigner and relax enough to make progress.
If you allow yourself to be drawn into the story, a peculiar thing happens. Rather than focusing on Firth's technique for stammering, you will start to think about the man he's portraying. There are scenes showing how he behaves when he's alone with his wife and his two little girls, and how they accept him for who he is.
Firth's portrayal isn't over the top. He's a reserved man who isn't used to speaking up for himself. Over the course of the story, we see him grow. He finds that he has a voice.
The R-rating is for language and it absolutely has to be there for the story to work so effectively.
The technical aspects of the film are superb. The sets, costumes, casting, sound and pacing are close to perfect. It won four Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Hooper), Actor in a Leading Role (Firth) and Original Screenplay (David Seidler). During his acceptance speech, Seidler revealed that he used to stammer. That explains why he was able to portray that fear so well.
The film won't appeal to everyone. It succeeds because of the dialogue and the strength of the story. There's no action and very little romance. If you like human interest stories, give it a try. It's among the best in that category.
If you like The King's Speech:
I don't know of any historical dramas with the level of wit and human interest that's present in The King's Speech. I did enjoy The Queen, with Michael Sheen as Tony Blair and Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II. It's worth your time, but doesn't reach the level attained by The King's Speech.
Director Tom Hooper was responsible for The Damned United, also starring Michael Sheen. It's a compelling drama about English soccer in the 70s. If you have any interest in the subject matter, it's a wonderful film.
If you're a fan of Colin Firth, his best performance before The King's Speech was in either A Single Man or Pride and Prejudice (TV mini-series, 1995).
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