Tom Hooper deserves credit. What he achieved in The King’s Speech demands close scrutiny for what it represents to the future of cinema. Hooper succeeded in making a movie that for two hours puts forth not a single idea that may stimulate the intellect or offend a demographic group. And the audiences and the Academy love it! If Hollywood ever decides to bring the Hays Code back from the bad days of self-censorship, they’ll use this movie as an example that castrated filmmakers can still make ‘great cinema’.
Colin Firth plays Bertie, also known as Albert and the Duke of York, the heir to the British throne. Bertie has a stammer and needs help to overcome this impediment because he needs to speak in public a lot. His wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), hooks him up with Lionel Logue, a failed Australian actor (the total opposite of the brilliant Geoffrey Rush), who’s good at helping people with speech impediments. His assistance proves essential when Bertie becomes King George VI during World War II and has to deliver a worldwide war speech. Lionel coaches him and Bertie delivers it without problems. I’m not ruining the movie by spelling out the ending in the second paragraph, am I? It’s not like the ‘inspiring true story’ bit from the trailer refers to Bertie’s total and utter failure to deliver his wartime speech. That wouldn’t be very inspiring, would it?
‘True story’ in recent times has become a code for predictable movies about insignificant historical figures involved in unmemorable events. These movies usually contain an uplifting ending, and if the reality isn’t uplifting enough, they’ll correct that in the screenplay. Yes, the good old days when only really remarkable people like Lawrence of Arabia and Gandhi graced the silver screen are gone. All hail the rejects who aren’t even good enough for footnotes in an eccentric history guide to obscure historical figures.
The movie, of course, works hard at selling the idea that Bertie is amazing, the one and only who could steer his country during the war. Although he’s just a king he’s so awesome he could double as the Messiah. Contrast is one of the best tools used in screenwriting to flesh out character. So who is Bertie contrasted against? His father, King George V (Michael Gambon), who comes across as a jerk who looks down on the commoners; and his brother, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), another jerk who fires eighty servants and buys expensive jewellery to his wife. Bertie is appalled. Bertie would never do that! No? He probably did too, but let’s not dwell on it. It’s important to sell the image that a strong leader is always morally irreprehensible. We don’t want the masses to start doubting institutionalised authority.
The Hays Code is very much alive.
And what about the friendship between Bertie and a commoner like Lionel? This movie after all is about their friendship. The movie even ends with the crucial information that Bertie and Lionel remained friends until their deaths. Who wouldn’t want to serve under this King? He even treats the little people like real human beings. In the sinister agenda of social control at the core of this movie it’s important to reiterate that our leaders are just like us. Sure, they’re rich and free to be irresponsible but deep down they’re just like us.
The movie goes to great lengths to show just how ordinary the aristocrats are. Although under the Hays Code they can’t show sex, they can nevertheless show something just as familiar and enjoyable to the masses: toilet jokes. Consider the first meeting between Elizabeth and Lionel. She enters his office and what do we hear? A toilet flushing! And look how embarrassed she looks. What a clever way to break the ice! And then when Bertie comes in they do it again! In a movie by Adam Sandler people would call this puerile. But in the best movie of the year it’s a scene of superb cerebral wit. It must be that British touch; everything’s funnier when it’s British. Even better is the scene when Lionel’s wife meets the new royal couple. Look how awed she is. Isn’t that just what all of us mortals aspire to? Hanging out with the famous?
And in this fashion the movie progresses to its uplifting conclusion, at points stopping to generate fake conflict because, although we all know where the movie is going, it’s important to give the illusion the movie is suspenseful. I know I lost count of the times Bertie furiously quit the treatment with Lionel only to come back. But nothing beats the scene when the Archbishop of Canterbury (Derek Jacobi) reveals that Lionel doesn’t really have a diploma in speech therapy! Now let’s stop and think. At this point in the movie Bertie is about to be crowned king. He’s been with Lionel for considerable time already. He’s improved; he’s witnessed the effectiveness of Lionel’s methods. But they needed an antagonist, and the Archbishop wasn’t doing much in the movie, so why not, let’s turn him into a villain for three minutes. Well, that crisis solved, the movie continues until the next time Bertie throws a tantrum at Lionel or whatever. This is writing that at best can only be described as garbage. David Seidler is going to win an Oscar over the much superior Mike Leigh. Think about that. Right now even Christopher Nolan’s screenplay full of underdeveloped characters and expository dialogue is looking positively Shakespearean.
Firth and Rush are very good. Bonham Carter is adequate in an undemanding role. The rest is execrable. Alexandre Desplat’s score can’t hold its ground every time classical music plays. The movie is visually dull – apart from some nice use of the London fog, the camera just stands there like a silent eunuch in the corner waiting for his master’s orders. But Hooper never gives his camera anything interesting to do or film.
Fans of simple messages who need to have restored their faith in perfect leaders and who believe that this world is the best of possible worlds and that hard work conquers everything, if you occasionally watch movies that weren’t made seventy years ago, a mediocre director called Tom Hooper has just made the movie of your dreams.
Director: Tom Hooper
Screenplay: David Seidler
Cast: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon
Runtime: 118 min