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The King’s Speech

Triumph over adversity > royalty/nation imperilled > sibling rivalry > domineering father casts large shadow > gradual erosion of class-based divide > period drama trimmings > singsong revelations of horrendous childhood > cruel mother > review almost pointless.

This film has covered all the bases, using precise mathematical formula, and you cannot escape its Mobius emotional properties. No matter how cynical you are, you will enjoy The King’s Speech.

The film is extremely and respectably entertaining, that being the dead-eyed aim here above and beyond all else. Tom Hooper adopts a tone of quiet pomp throughout: gently rousing, immediate-magnitude mid-paced zooms provoke time-honoured, tightly-constructed responses. They are stirringly employed, in particular, when the speech in question gradually hits stride. And, as with Hooper’s previous The Damned United, a tumultuous bromance unfolds amidst the lavish sets and fusty recreations: likeably and amusingly in a gainsaying manner which is all about dissolving Firth’s layers of entitled unease. Geoffrey Rush, in a brilliant performance, by far the best of the film, is an apposite foil to Firth, but can’t quite help acting him off the screen in even the more innocuous, quieter moments. Rush, you are reminded, is surely the greatest tics-and-gestures actor around now: he does things physically that speak as eloquently of his character as any perfectly-timed intonation.

Firth, who really need only turn up for an ‘evens’ Oscar shout, offers an admirably shouty and stuttery effort. For me he was perfectly suited to the George Falconer role in A Single Man and put in his best, most unusually vulnerable work there – and here he’s very good indeed but it’s the same very good indeed he seems to roll out at a whim, virtually indistinct each time. He conjures easy empathy by being himself; he is haughty and quickly and volubly incensed throughout and yet he is impossible to take against – he has an unimpeachable presence. You can’t, then, argue with the casting. Helena Bonham-Carter, so often an entirely respectable yet bloodless presence in many a film, is strangely likeable here, even warm. Everyone is. They’ve got Timothy Spall in to make Churchill likeable as opposed to doughty and indubitably fierce. They’ve even got Jennifer Ehle in for a Pride and Prejudice-related audience nudge-sigh moment.

The story: Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) has a crippling speech defect that makes public addresses humiliating. He’s botching the closing speech at the Wembley Empire Exhibition as the film gets underway. He attempts to redress the issue by seeking out some speech therapy and ultimately, via the happy work of Duchess of York Helena Bonham-Carter, meets Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who he initially rebuffs in a fit of misguided pique: he is soon hauled in front of the microphone again by dad, King George V (Michael Gambon), for part of the royal Christmas broadcast and isn’t too happy about it: what follows is a predictably miserable, embarrassing charade. His father isn’t having any of this blather about stammers and makes matters worse by hammering his intolerant disappointment home. A dispirited Firth slips the copy of his own Shakespeare ‘To be, or not to be’ rendition onto the turntable, the hitherto forgotten ‘gift’ that Rush oversaw immediately prior to the initial parting of their ways, and the stammer-less result has him occasioning a swift and contrite return to his abandoned mentor.

Meanwhile, the King eventually succumbs to well-documented madness and it’s brother The Prince Of Wales’ (Guy Pearce, still running on a ‘four great scenes, one stinker’ ratio) turn to run the empire and hopefully live long, but he’s having none of it: he’s in love with a commoner and far from in love with terrifying responsibility so would rather pass the whole King thing up. And there’s a war taking shape: ghastly Hitler is marshalling the troops for a crack at the world title and will soon be dropping bombs on London. So the new monarch doesn’t even have time for a second terrible scene before he’s away with Wallis, and our querulous hero must ready himself for the biggest job of all as King George VI. Well, it was then.

The film races towards the moment of truth, as Rush coaches Firth through his damp-browed address to the nation, and surely many are disappointed at such a proficient job. He gets the message across to the millions huddled beside their radios, slumped in smoky bars and nervously congregated in factories, his delivery suffering only the merest flaw as we share in odd elation at a personal triumph and the sure news that The nation is at war!And, as usual, the very best work is being done by those out of the limelight.

PS it’ll be interesting to see what director Tom Hooper next helms: he seems to make only films about the buddyish accord between a capricious man in a position of vulnerable power and a resourceful and pleasant sidekick keeping the former on the rails.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. mary gilbert
    February 15, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    I can’t add much to your thoughtful review Lee as you’ve made all the points for me including the fact that it’s actually very enjoyable. I absolutely agree that Geoffrey Rush steals every scene but then he had the opportunity to play an unknown eccentric whereas Colin Firth was straitjacketed by having to play King Dad. An excellent performance of course but I can’t help feeling that the BAFTA ( and the Oscar to come….) are really being awarded to the Queen for being an all round brick and for filling those cinema seats. I didn’t even recognise Jennifer Ehle at first and as I’d recently watched P and P again I felt a real pang for the decline in her career whereas Firth is reaching that age where having outgrown Darcy he’ll be prime material for elder statesmen, wise fathers, pensioner romances etc etc – years of work in other words.
    It was a pity there wasn’t more of David and Wallis because a more ghastly couple would be hard to find. I preferred Tom Hollander’s version in ITV’s Any Human Heart to Guy Pearce’s – a wonderful combination of peevishness and pomposity.
    The gathering round the factory radio seemed a tad sentimental – a bit Millions Like Us – but my mother tells me that my grandma listened to that speech with her family and was willing the King on past every possible speech bump.

  2. February 16, 2011 at 9:01 am

    You’re quite right to point out – as I should have, really, and now wish I had – that Firth has much less creative freedom. And you’re of course right about the Queen as well. Perhaps in his acceptance ‘address’…

    Yes, I felt a similar thing re: Ehle – it took a couple of scenes at home with the Logues to realise it was her (I had already read the cast listings and was unaware at which point she was going to appear) – and my first thought, on hearing about her involvement, was, I must confess, ‘Has Hooper got her involved as some kind of pre-emptive P&P frisson?’ type-thought. Which has nothing to do with how good Ehle is – I think she’s great in everything I’ve seen her in and I hope this gets her better roles in future – but you know what I mean.

    Eve Best, in her brief scenette, is pretty likeable, and Pearce is allowed to do the ‘bumbling ineffective’ thing. So not particularly accurate as you say!

    I confess I didn’t actually know about the speech defect and the ensuing drama – your anecdote about your grandma and her family is great – until I initially read about the film. Shameful!

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