In which we learn that confidence is borne of a way lot of swearing.
2010’s most likely (perhaps) Best Picture Oscar winner is also the year’s most obvious contender. World War II period drama? Got it. A passel of talented British acting talent? Done. As insurance, just in case the entire thing didn’t scream “classy, quirky Oscar drama,” they even threw in Miss Helena Bonham Carter. Cinema’s youthful queen of the costume drama plays the queen of England, with award-winners Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in the leads. If this thing doesn’t take home a small boatload of awards, it won’t be for lack of tryin’. Something funny happened on the way to awards season, though. Director Tom Hooper isn’t quite so cynical, and the tastes of movie-goers aren’t quite as jaded as all that. They’ve actually made a damned decent movie, even if not the year’s best.
The movie’s opening is nearly unbearable: Prince Albert, the Duke of York played by Colin Firth, has been tasked with giving the closing speech at the 1925 colonial exhibition in London. Before a packed Wembley Stadium, the future king stammers his way through the opening of his prepared remarks, evoking pity and veiled contempt before the film cuts away, mercifully. Fortunately, his brother is next in line to be king, so such public humiliations for Prince Albert will be rare. That is, of course, until his father George V (the ubiquitous and always welcome Michael Gambon) takes ill and his older brother Edward takes up with American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Albert’s prospects for a relatively quiet life as prince become increasingly precarious. With the coming of the age of radio, the royal family will no longer simply wave politely from ornate windows. What’s a maybe/doesn’t wanna be king to do? Albert undertakes an increasingly ridiculous series of speech therapies before finding his way to failed Australian actor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). You’ll not be at all surprised that Lionel’s techniques are unconventional, and his insistence on dealing with the prince in a familiar and equal manner provides for a much of the film’s charm and a great deal of its humor. Lionel’s eccentricity is a little by-the-numbers, but it works. In addition to normal vocal exercises, Albert, or “Bertie” at Lionel’s insistence, is made to loosen up by swearing and singing his way through his diction problems (rumors are that the Weinsteins are currently at work on a re-edit that removes said swearing in order to secure a more family-friendly rating). As time passes, it becomes clear to both men that Bertie’s stammer is less the result of any physical deformity and more the product of a challenging and bullied childhood. Times are tough all over, it would seem, even for young princes.
If this all sounds terribly inconsequential, it felt that way to me for early stretches as well. It doesn’t take long, though, to develop a strong sympathy with the earnest and upstanding Bertie. For those of us who think keenly and often about embarrassment, particularly of the public variety, and for whom disdain and disappointment seem to lurk around every corner waiting to pounce, there won’t be many higher stakes than those which Bertie faces. Each of Bertie’s halting and tortured attempts at speaking publicly is almost painful to watch. And, as the threat of Nazism gathers, the stakes become more than personal. It becomes clear that Bertie is far more capable of leading the British people than his spoiled and childish brother, even as he is less likely to be taken seriously. A few words from the King may make all the difference to a frightened people, and Bertie’s inability to provide them becomes dramatically consequential. The subtly washed-out, but highly textured cinematography provides a muted backdrop that stays out of the way of the performances.
Colin Firth always manages a boyish quality in defiance of his 50 years, and that dichotomy serves him well here. He’s every bit the loyal, responsible prince, even as his ticks and boyhood traumas threaten to constantly overwhelm him. Rush, meanwhile, is as capable as he is likeable, but his character here isn’t much of a stretch. It’s exactly the type of performance one expects out of Rush: knowing, quirky, and charmingly offbeat. It fits the part, but it’s impossible to forget that it’s Geoffrey Rush. The supporting cast puts in some fine work as well: Bonham Carter plays the future Queen Mum with a dry wit that feels just right, and Guy Pearce is rather brilliant as Prince Edward. It’s a selfish character that you really want to hate, but Pearce smartly plays him as every bit as damaged as Bertie. With all of the talk about The King’s Speech leading into awards season, I haven’t heard much about Pearce’s performance. That’s too bad—it’s a standout. Timothy Spall gives it a go, but falls victim to Winston Churchill. With that ruddy bulldog face, keen eyes, gnawed cigar, and enormous waistline (with a personality to match), Churchill lends himself readily to caricature. It’s not Spall’s fault, merely Churchill’s ability to confound actors decades post-mortem. Brendan Gleeson mostly avoids the trap in 2009’s Into the Storm (by the way), but it’s no mean feat. The King’s Speech is, ultimately, a film that manages to be fabulously entertaining without breaking any new ground. It’s sure-footed, confident, and personal. If you happen to share any of Bertie’s phobias, even in small part, it also happens to be scary as hell.