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Entries in King's Speech/The [2010] (1)


The King's Speech (2010)

Pure Majesty

“Who the fuck is Tom Hooper?”

That was my first thought as the end credits rolled on The King’s Speech.  His IMDB page lists a lot of English movies he directed that I haven’t seen, but I’m glad I caught his latest, as it’s my new pick for best of the year.

This has Oscar bait written all over it, but unlike a lot of the pictures that kept me away from the theatre in the five fall seasons before launching Kicking the Seat, The King’s Speech deserves every accolade and every viewer it can get.  This is a near-perfect film that had me in tears from almost the very beginning up until the very end—not because it’s particularly weepy, but because the love of filmmaking and attention to detail from everyone involved touched that primal part of my spirit known as the Artist Brain.

Colin Firth stars as Albert Frederick Arthur George, the naval officer who became King George VI at the dawn of World War II.  The film opens with his inauguration as Duke of York in 1925, where his severe stuttering problem leads to a disastrous speech at Wembley Stadium that is broadcast all over England via that scrappy young medium called radio.  As he stands at the microphone, everyone from his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) to his minister hang their heads and furrow their brows in embarrassment; the words start and stop suddenly, and there are really long pauses that go way beyond anyone’s notion of dramatic effect.

We jump ahead nine years to find Elizabeth scraping the bottom of the barrel for a competent speech therapist to help Albert (or “Bertie”, as she calls him) with public speaking.  She’s referred to Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian speech specialist and aspiring actor.  She doesn’t mention her husband’s royal status at first, and reluctantly agrees to Logue’s condition that all sessions be conducted in his inner-city office.

When Albert shows up for his first appointment and Logue figures out his identity, the men begin an awkward supremacy dance.  One man is a powerful British ruler; the other is a strict disciple of procedure who refuses to let the duke smoke or use his title during their conversations.  Thus begins a years-long process of bizarre voice and body exercises and armchair psychology that Logue hopes will root out the causes of Albert’s condition and give him the means to overcome it.

The cause is never specified, but we’re led to believe that Albert’s overbearing father and proud, reckless older brother had something to do with it.  Dad is, of course, King George V, and as played by Michael Gambon, he’s a frustrated relic of high society who fears his son Edward’s (Guy Pearce) affair with a married (and twice divorced) American socialite will compromise his future as king.  His other son’s stutter renders him unable to gain the confidence of the people, rendering him an ineffective king.  King George and Edward tease and harass Albert into becoming a frustrated man-child whose airs of royalty barely mask his insecurities and temper—which makes Logue’s work that much more difficult.

The film winds its way to the climactic speech of the title.  In 1939, Britain finds itself at war with Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Albert is called upon to deliver a nine-minute address to the nation.  Following his father’s death and his brother’s abdication of the throne, Albert reluctantly becomes King George VI, and as he stands in a tiny room with Logue coaching him from behind another giant microphone, he rallies his people with a fine, fine speech.

If The King’s Speech were a sports movie, the speech would be The Big Game at the end.  It’s no spoiler to reveal that Albert does well—especially with Wikipedia one click away.  But as with the best sports films, the fun and thrills aren’t determined by the outcome, but by the protagonist’s journey and perseverance in the face of an indomitable foe.

So let’s talk about Colin Firth, shall we?  Yes, he’s a British actor, which may lead some to think playing Albert would be a cakewalk; and how hard can faking a stutter be?  Didn’t Ricky Gervais say that the surest way to win an Oscar is to play someone with a handicap or to star in a World War II film?  Well, I’m not an actor, but it’s evident from every frame of Firth’s performance that he acted the hell out of this part; and not in a cheesy, “actorly” way, either.  To watch him is to believe that Colin Firth has a stutter, one that he learns to live with and almost conquer over the course of two hours.

Even if he didn’t have the speech impediment, his Albert lives the claustrophobic life of a man governed by laws and traditions that have no meaning to him.  He has only his wife to confide in, but his makeup dictates that he only open up so far.  It’s only in his dealings with Logue that he comes to understand, far too late in life, the value of individuality and friendship.  At one point, Logue does him a favor and says, “What are friends for?”  Albert’s response, “I wouldn’t know” is heartbreaking.

As terrific as Firth is, it’s his sparring with Geoffrey Rush that makes The King’s Speech a truly magical picture.  Logue has his own insecurities brought on by a life of unrealized dreams and the need to provide for his family at any cost.  We learn about him gradually, with surprising clues springing up throughout the film, until we’re left with a sad, complex character at the end; his playful, confident demeanor up to that point is almost undone, and he is saved only by his friendship with Albert and his talent for reading people.  Rush plays every note honestly, never going too goofy in the comedic scenes or melodramatic in the heavier ones.

Honestly, there’s not an un-superb actor in this movie.  And it’s remarkable that not only are there three Harry Potter stars running around (Bonham Carter, Gambon, and Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill), but each showcases their talents in ways that Hollywood blockbusters don’t normally allow.

The King’s Speech is the anti-blockbuster; I’ll go so far as to say it’s an anti-American-style movie.  That’s not totally fair, but given the glut of easy awards-ready fare I’ve had to wade through lately (*cough* True Grit *cough*), it feels pretty accurate.  I can’t remember the last time I saw a modern American movie with honest-to-God visual themes.

Wait.  Actually, yes I can: It was last year’s A Serious Man—back when the Coen Brothers were still trying.

Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler have miniaturized the historical epic, making The King’s Speech a celebration of not only cinema but also one man’s ability to shape world events by first improving himself.  Seidler’s dialogue is observant, hilarious and devastating, often in the same scene, and he captures the pomposity of proper English conversation without getting bogged down in it (*cough* True Grit *cough* *cough*).  I can’t say enough great things about this movie, other than Drop What You’re Doing and Go See It Right Now.

Also, remember the name Tom Hooper.