What made Tom Hooper’s miniseries John Adams so outstanding, besides the stunning performances, was that he managed to take these historical figures and make them so wonderfully human, without once detracting from their grandeur. These were fragile men, who had petty squabbles and who got mad and who went home and complained to their wives, but who also did great things. That same powerful dichotomy, that mix of fragility and bravery, is absolutely at hand in his latest marvelous film The King’s Speech. The Duke of York suffers a hideous stutter, and he has attempted numerous speech therapies and remedies to no avail. Suddenly, he finds himself thrust into the position of monarch and needing to bolster his people against the threat of Adolf Hitler. With the help of a non-conventional speech therapist who has to crack the regal arrogance to get to the man inside, the king’s able to free himself from his burdens and become the king he needs to be. Saying it out loud makes it sound like it’s going to be some sort of horribly cheesy mash-up of The Miracle Worker and a summer stock performance of a Shakespearean History play. But with remarkable performances and a buoyant swath of humor, The King’s Speech floats so whimsically and charmingly, you feel yourself drawn in and sighing contentedly, like slipping into a warm bath after a tough day.
Bertie (Colin Firth) don’t talk so good. Which wouldn’t normally be a problem, except he’s The Duke of York, and his father, King George V (Michael Gambon), expects him to speak at various functions. His stutter is so ghastly it sounds like the words are lodging in his throat like a huge chunk of apple and he literally chokes himself with them. When he speaks publicly, the audience looks around like someone farted during a graveside eulogy. He and his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) have gone through the requisite quacks — credentialed buffoons who prescribe everything from smoking cigarettes to relax the throat to stuffing the mouth with marbles and attempted to read passages. Finally, they discover Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a failed actor with unorthodox methods for unlocking the King buried beneath the stuttering Duke. It’s a contentious relationship, full of swearing and drinking and shouting — and those are the happy times. Things become worse for The Duke of York when King George V dies and his scandalous brother King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) chooses the trifling love of a Baltimore divorcee over the throne of the British Empire. Now, with Hitler on the horizon, the country needs a strong leader, and Bertie finds himself regretfully holding the reins.
But that’s why the movie works. While the history acts as the fire which stokes the story, the spine of the story is about Bertie and Lionel. Lionel doesn’t give a good goddamn that Bertie’s the King of England outside of his office; he’s a patient when he’s there. King George VI is locked away in a tower of fear, and Lionel goes to exceptional length to unlock him. There are plenty of pretty speeches, but plenty more human and hilarious moments. Bertie is frightened, petrified that he isn’t enough of a man to handle the tasks set forth for him, and the film is less about him taking the throne and more about finding the man he needs to be. Screenwriter David Seidler himself actually had a pretty severe stammer growing up, so he wrote the script about his personal hero, King George VI, who overcame the same handicap to flourish as a monarch.
While the film does get a bit languorous towards the middle and some of the blue screening is obvious, you are able to forgive these slight set-pieces for the love of the acting. The acting is top shelf across the board. Sure, these folks are playing broader versions of real people, but these aren’t caricatures. They’re honest and magnificent portrayals. You’d expect nothing less from Derek Jacobi and Michael Gambon, but everyone’s on their game. Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew from the Harry Potter films), who is quickly growing into a personal hero of mine as a character actor, is spectacular as Winston Churchill, even though there is a bit of an initial titter at seeing him on screen. Guy Pearce is steadfastly climbing back into the limelight after an quiet departure after The Time Machine. He was terrific in Animal Kingdom, but he plays Edward with all the spite and sneer of his Felicia from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and it’s yet another step-up for him.
Like everyone else, Tim Burton’s frequent overuse of Helena Bonham Carter made her slightly boring to me. Sure, she was good, but who fucking cares, right? So easily did I forget her comic timing and her dry wit. Her Elizabeth is just awesome — and while most of her contemporaries will be forced to scream frantically or cry hysterically to earn accolades, she does it with a gentle lilt and a rise of a single eyebrow in what’s mostly a comic performance. Because he too has had a career that took an insane cant, it’s easy to forget how fantastic Geoffrey Rush is. His Lionel is fucking splendid, like watching Amadeus go apeshit on a keyboard guitar. Rush goes from stolid to passionate to giddy to somber so fluidly, it looks like he’s not moving at all. There’s never been any question about Colin Firth’s talents or abilities. He just continues to be the fucking bridesmaid at all of the awards ceremonies. I would exclaim this is finally his year, that he’s bound to finally be appreciated for all of his hard work, because there isn’t a single performance this year that even remotely holds a candle to what he does with Bertie, but such is the lot of Colin Firth. One day, his prince will come, but I’m hoping it’s for playing this prince.
Despite the central lag, Hooper performs magic with Seidler’s script. He frames his actors in terrific tableaus, just off center of camera with massive, realistic backdrops. Even with slightly shoddy effects, watching tiny actors stroll down the massive Westminster Abbey aisle is breathtaking. But all of that is secondary to just simply letting his actors shine. The King’s Speech isn’t one of those jaw dropping efforts where you sit back and marvel at the sheer power of the film. It’s quiet and confident, a pleasant film going experience where you get to watch actors at the pinnacle of their craft. And the more you ponder it, the more you realize just how much you enjoyed the film.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was admitted to a free screening of this film.