Thursday, August 15, 2013


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In 2011 the Academy started the new decade off with a bit of a throwback;  Tom Hooper's THE KING'S SPEECH, is the kind of handsome English period piece that won so many awards back in the 1960's.  Which isn't to say it's a bad film, it's just that it so positively drips with uplift and importance that at times it can be overbearing, and I sometimes find it too stately and too enamored with its English royal characters.  While I think overall it's a fine film, it's not my favorite of that year.

Screenwriter David Seidler first got the idea for the film years earlier; as a child in England, Seidler had a stammer that he eventually overcame, inspired by King George VI's overcoming of his stammer.  Years later, Seidler wanted to turn that king's story into a movie.  In the 1970's and 80's he researched the story, eventually meeting with the king's son and widow.  The widow requested that he not do the story until after her death because it brought back painful memories for her , and he agreed.  She passed in 2002 and he began work on the story again three years later.  Eventually he wrote a script that almost became a play before English director Tom Hooper became interested.  Eventually the English Bedlam Productions studio agreed to finance the film with help from the UK Film Council.  Hugh Grant and Paul Bettany were both considered for the role of the king before Colin Firth, riding high after a netting a best actor nomination for his previous role in A SINGLE MAN, was cast, with the highly respected Helena Bonham Carter signed up to play his wife.  Meanwhile the part of the king's Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, seemed perfect for well known Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, who was quickly brought in.  Working with a tight budget of around $15,000,000, production designer and set designer Eve Stewart and Judy Farr, along with costume designer Jenny Beavan managed to all do impressive work and help deliver a good looking film, shot entirely in different English locations.  Thanks to strong word of mouth and reviews, the film would go on to gross almost $140,000,000 in the US alone.

Helena Bonham Carter, Colin Firth & Geoffrey Rush

   Beginning in 1925, we see Prince Albert, the Duke of York and the second son of King George V(Firth), stammer his way painfully through a speech heard around the world.  His wife Elizabeth (Carter) convinces him to see unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Rush) who slowly but surely works  with him.  When King George V (Micheal Gambon) dies, Albert's older brother Edward (Guy Pierce) abdicates the throne to marry a twice divorced American, forcing Albert onto the throne.  When war is declared with Germany, Lionel helps Albert give a rousing speech to the whole country.

Considering the formulaic story and often serious tone of the major world events happening in the film, it's a relief that Seidler's script is filled with welcome witty lines for its talented English cast to say.  I love the way that Micheal Gambon's king, remarking on how the royalty are expected to behave,  angrily says "This family is reduced to those lowest, basest of all creatures, we've become actors!".  This reaches a high point when Lionel gets Albert to swear repeatedly to loosen him up, which unfortunately caused this otherwise clean film to get an R rating. It was worth it to show such a funny and bonding moment for Lionel and Albert.
While THE KING'S SPEECH is a number of things, at its heart its a mismatched buddy movie, with the uptight, wealthy English royal Albert forced to work with the lower class, eccentric  Australian Lionel, who refuses to show the Duke the respect he's used to (he calls the Duke "Bertie"!).  Inevitably the two men's differences cause them to clash at first (There's a nice visualization of that as Albert looks so out of place as he sits in front of a worn down wall in Lionel's office), but they eventually learn to trust and respect one another, and Lionel even gets Albert to open up about the abusive nanny he had as a child.  Rush is a delight as the Shakespeare loving, mildly eccentric Lionel, who knows when to praise Albert and when to anger him.  As Albert, Firth won a best Actor award for his work, and he is very good in his ability to make the audience wince every time his stammer acts up, and one can really sense the frustration this obviously intelligent man has in simply being unable to express himself.   And of course his chemistry with  Rush is likable and believable, as are the romantic sparks between him and Helena Bonham Carter, who brings great warmth to the standard role of the supporting wife.  And the film is nicely filled out with good performances from actors like Timothy Spall as a humorous Winston Churchill and Guy Pierce as Albert's selfish brother Edward.

Colin Firth

The film's final scenes are a big build up to the king's first big speech now that war has been declared with Germany, and Hooper loads up the tension, making it seem like Albert approaching a seemingly huge microphone is practically entering a lion's den.  The inevitable power of the speech is shown through a montage of various English people (rich and poor, soldier and servant) listening in; while the images are lovely here,  I can't help thinking that Hooper and Seidler are overselling the speech and heroism of Albert (who is called brave more than once in the film).  Although I can understand that the royalty still meant something to many people in England,  I can't quite say that I agree that one man over coming his stammer can really be put on the same level as soldiers heading off to fight and die, king or not.  I will freely admit that, having grown up in a country without royalty, I sometimes find movies that praise them like this a bit hard to swallow.  People in other countries are free to disagree.


I've already said that I enjoyed other movies from 2010 more than this one: I think films like THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT, WINTER'S BONE, TOY STORY 3 and my personal favorite, David Fincher's THE SOCIAL NETWORK are all superior.  But THE KING'S SPEECH is a solid and well made film, so it certainly isn't a poor choice.