December 21, 2010
The King's Speech (2010) ****
Directed by Tom Hooper
The King's Speech (2010)- Flawed, but a refreshingly humble telling of importance & accomplishment. Solid acting. **** out of 5
The King's Speech plays out like a formula sports movie, with an under-performer working with a coach not living up to his potential to improve his level of play culminating in a tense match up where the audience roots almost beyond hope for the victory of the underdog. Not to spoil anything, but like your average sports movie, there's little surprise at the end of The King's Speech. Yet, Colin Firth's stuttering Duke of York, who later becomes King George VI of England, the father of the present Queen Elizabeth, is not engaging in anything as ultimately inconsequential as a sporting event. He's tasked to deliver a proclamation of the beginning of World War II to his subjects over the radio, and thus, this time around, the painful self-importance of most sports movies is placed aside for legitimate stakes that merit such tension and sentimentality.
We root for the King, who is known affectionately as Bertie by his eccentric vocal coach Lionel (Geoffrey Rush). Lionel's philosophy is that he can cure one's stutter by creating a safe environment at his own home office, thus insisting that Bertie must come to him. This is one of many rules of royal etiquette that Lionel finds superfluous and perhaps even harmful. The pressure to be a member of royalty must be especially hard for a stutterer considering that the Royal Family's primary function is to act as a voice to the people. With walls and heirs built up between Lionel and Bertie, there's no way for Lionel to help Bertie get to the root cause of why he stutters in the first place.
Thus, the two become not only teacher and pupil, but also close and trusted friends, and they get into some serious personal disagreements as friends do. Lionel and Bertie work on the mechanics with (sports-like) montages of repeating sounds, loosening the jaw, singing, dancing and cursing, all of which are meant to help Bertie find the rhythm to his speech. He also forces Bertie to come to terms with his own past, wrought, as one might expect, with ridicule by those he loves the most.
Lionel plays an even more important role once Bertie's father, King George V, dies, and his playboy older brother, played by Guy Pierce, becomes King Edward VIII. Until Edward has an heir, Bertie is next in line to the throne. Due to his love for a married American woman from Baltimore, Edward abdicates the throne to Bertie in order to marry a woman of divorce, which at the time was not permitted for royalty. Thus, Bertie becomes King George VI at the precise moment Hitler becomes an unparalleled European threat.
From this synopsis, it might seem like The King's Speech is a stuffy, serious historical drama, when in reality, it's so light and airy that it almost floats away completely. We could have been given a film that emphasizes the grandiosity of royal living, much like The Young Victoria, but instead, much of the film takes place inside the home of Lionel. This is a humble film telling an intimate story about a truly important event. Ultimately, it does make sense to tell this story in this way considering that we're dealing with a man overcoming a personal lifelong struggle. No matter who is attempting to jump a hurdle, the training and perseverance necessary to do so must be done by the individual with the most support given by maybe one or two people that surround him. Anything beyond that and things get complicated thereby lessening the chances of success. Look at weight loss as an example.
Lionel is not the only one fiercely loyal to Bertie. His loving wife, played by Helena Bonham Carter, has taken the concrete steps necessary to find help for her husband over and over again with no success. She's willing to sit outside in a waiting room in support of the man she loves unconditionally. Her support not only helps her husband but also helps her country. Though this future queen and future king have an unconventional marriage, they truly love each other, and their familiar love allows us to relate to people living vastly different lives than our own.
The King's Speech is not really a success due to its screenplay or its director, Tom Hooper. If anything, neither matches the considerable talent of the actors who elevate their performances into greatness. Hooper, only 38 years old, directed a good film from 2009 called The Damned United, and in that film, I criticized some of the directing flourishes that seemed too precious and on the nose, including what looked like Power Point scrolling of soccer scores flashing across the screen. In this film, Hooper ratchets up the whimsy with distracting and superfluous framing shots and extreme comic close-ups during training montages. These moments almost unhinge the film altogether, as if Hooper isn't taking his material seriously at all. Rush and Firth are engaging and humorous enough during these sequences that the director doesn't need to step in and provide the kind of quirk we see with Wes Anderson or in a film like Garden State. There's a little too much hipster in Hooper's direction.
That being said, with the exception of Guy Pierce who gives a two-dimensional cardboard cutout of a performance, the acting is top notch all around. Helena Bonham Carter is one of those actress who can't help but be oddly compelling on screen in whatever role she tackles, which was made clear this past year in Alice in Wonderland. On paper, her role couldn't have been very interesting. She doesn't have huge emotional or comic scenes like Firth and Rush, but she's every bit as memorable and commanding, making the most of her limited screen time. There's much talk of an Oscar nomination for Carter, and I think I stand by the belief that, had any other actress at all tackled this role, there probably wouldn't have been any supporting actress nominations for any award at all for The King's Speech.
Firth is quite good, and at times excellent, proving after A Single Man that he's among the greatest actors working today. He may very well win the Oscar, though I'm not sure he's on the same level as James Franco in 127 Hours or Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network. Much like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, the performance is anchored by an acting gimmick. Firth seems like he spent more time perfecting his stutter than really delving into the core of his complicated character. He always delivers what's necessary, but I do think he or another actor could have given a performance with more nuance.
The standout, however, is Geoffrey Rush, who gives one of the best performances of the year as Lionel. Granted, his character is written with a side plot about acting that doesn't really go anywhere, but Rush makes Lionel into the kind of ultra-talented, ultra-intuitive comrade to the future king that makes us understand completely why such an important man like King George VI would want this Australian commoner around him for his entire career. Rush rightly never gives into the pathos that I imagine the screenwriters were going for by emphasizing Lionel's failed acting past. This would have given the character ulterior motivations for the King's success that would have made little sense within the film.
Rush is one of those actors that doesn't get a lot of respect from American audiences. He's an Oscar winner for Shine, a film I haven't seen, and he was nominated for a brave performance as the Marquis de Sade in Quills and for Shakespeare in Love. No other actor that I can think of so reliably does exactly what is necessary in a film without a hint of smugness. Rush burrows so deep into his roles that it's almost impossible to fully grasp his persona outside of his performances. Therefore, our celebrity obsessed American culture most likely doesn't even register Rush as a personage outside of whatever role he is delivering at any given moment. He's spectacular in The King's Speech, giving a grand performance that never once pulls focus from our main character. Rush is funny, charming, fascinating and real, elevating Lionel beyond the cliches that exist in the script into a pivotal congenial anchor for King George VI.
The King's Speech provides the inspirational finale we've all come to expect from a sports film. It also sidesteps the pomposity of most royal costume dramas, giving us the intimate, human story behind one of the great examples of rising up to meet the vital challenges of leadership of the 20th century. Few films that I've seen so wisely avoid misjudging the scope of the subject matter within. The King's Speech could have been many different sorts of films, and I can't imagine how any of them could have been any more apropos.