You know a film has worked when it defies your best intentions. Not being especially fond of historical dramas, British High Society or (perhaps because he has tended to exemplify both) Colin Firth, but buoyed by exemplary reviews (usually hard-as-nails FT critic Nigel Andrews reported being left in tears) I went along to The King’s Speech determined to be analytical about it: weighing up frame composition, lighting, and so on – and intending to frame my review in terms the picture’s success at the technical art of film making. I quite like that sort of thing. I got as far as noticing how nicely the frames were composed – the opening scene is an extreme wide shot of the 1925 Empire Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, itself disappearing into the fog, and punctuated dead centre by an antique microphone, suspended on the cross-hairs of its shock-mount. The frame is reversed and the crosshairs are revealed to be trained like a sniper target on poor old stammering Duke of York, at that stage still Albert prior to his character’s coronation as George VI in 1936.
At that point in the film, three minutes in, wherein the Duke’s glottal stops, gag reflexes and not much else ricochet emptily around the blanketed arena like stray crossfire, the assembled multitude looks guiltily at its shoes, my critical aspirations were neutered as the exquisite melodrama swept me away. The best I managed for the remainder of the film was to note the repeated use of extreme wide-angle lens (any wider and it would have been fish eye) to accentuate the magnitude of the buildings and, I suppose the institutions this poor chap was expected to inhabit.
Now I said I wasn’t especially fond of Colin Firth as an actor, but I am now. Mr Firth utterly brings you in to the enormity of the world his character inhabits: it is a superb piece of acting. I dare say we’ve all reflected from time to time how awful it would be, in practice, to be royalty, but Firth’s delicate yet assured performance makes it all so plain. You feel all of his pain: Unlike anyone else on the planet if pomp and ceremony, or for that matter complete isolation from casual friendship, is not your thing, you’ve simply no choice. To abdicate (the option favoured by Albert’s older brother Edward) is to consign yourself forever into the wilderness of caricatured villainy. It had never happened before in the history of the British monarchy. But – so The King’s Speech would have it – Edward was not cut out to be king. He was not of the right stuff. George VI, against his own better judgment, was.
So at its heart, in The King’s Speech you have an achingly sorry story about a shy man compelled to speak boldly to a whole nation at its darkest time. That would be enough for a good film, but the surrounding performances, and the excellent screenplay, catapult it further.
Having tried all manner of cures, the disconsolate Duke’s persevering wife is given one last recommendation: a particular Harley Street elocutionist by the name of Logue. Against all convention she pays him a visit. We immediately know something is not right as the elevator lurches downward, not upward, to a sparsely furnished basement with wrecked wallpaper and no receptionist. She is greeted directly by the elocutionist, a shirt-sleeved Australian, and he makes a facile excuse for not having a secretary. Nor does he make concessions for his guest’s status. Australians don’t have truck with that sort of thing.
Geoffrey Rush, playing the Australian, is excellent – suitable not just on account of his native laconic Strine-ness (if anything the Ocker is dialed back from normal) but also in his flawless comic timing. While there is a rustic solemnity to much of his performance, it is the lighter moments that set it off. The central helix here is the relationship between these two men: both outsiders, both unqualified for their tasks, both of whom would rather be doing something else (in Logue’s case, amateur dramatics), but both uniquely positioned by their character to carry out their designated roles.
I’m pleased to report Helena Bonham Carter managed to slip her Burtonesque Gothic minders for this outing, and while there is just that hint of darkness about her performance – there always is – what you notice is how plausible a young Queen Mother (as most will remember her) she portrays. Timothy Spall’s Churchill is, as you expect, played largely (but reverently) for laughs and Derek Jacobi is the closest we get to a villain (the real villain here is circumstance) as a rather judgmental Archbishop of Canterbury.
The talent is, needless to say, from the top shelf of British acting corps, and the pacing and staging of the drama is masterfully done. Flickfeast’s Chris Knipp made the excellent observation that this is essentially a sports movie – the genre is overcoming insurmountable odds in the nick of time armed only with a motivational speech – in other clothes. And so it is, but it is so expertly done that you’d be hard hearted indeed not to fall for its charms.
I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve been manipulated by a good formula weepie, but it was done so cleverly and tactfully that I really don’t mind. Essential viewing.
DIRECTOR: TOM HOOPER
CAST: COLIN FIRTH, GEOFFREY RUSH, HELENA BONHAM CARTER, DEREK JACOBI
RUNTIME: 118 MIN