The King’s Speech (2010, Tom Hooper)
Howl about Oscar baiting all you want; tell me all about how much better The Social Network and, fuck, Toy Story 3 were than The King’s Speech and I will listen politely and even agree. But the truth is that if you can actually sit and watch this film and fail to surrender to it, you’re far stronger than me. Much as some would like you to believe otherwise, that’s not strictly because it’s so easy to digest and its emotional touchstones are so clearly defined; it’s because the thing offers the right kind of simplicity. Elegance even! And it sidesteps all the trappings of a biopic with the innovative strategy of not actually being a biopic, instead a bit of lightning-paced history in the attractive and artful vein of Quiz Show and All the President’s Men… except, alas, memorializing events that aren’t nearly as interesting.
Tom Hooper does his best to make it interesting; he’s helped along immensely in this regard by the screenwriter of the picture and the real auteur here, David Seidler. A lifelong stutterer, Seidler brings passionate investment in the triumphant tale of King George VI conquering his own stammer to deliver the crucial 1939 radio address announcing the war with Germany. Were anyone composing the story as a complete outsider, it would likely be absent of all of the detail and resonance Seidler provides, to say nothing of his equal interest in the life of the king’s speech therapist, Lionel Logue, who also treated Seidler’s uncle. Does any of it have anything much to do with actual history? Not really, given that it broadens the affliction’s resolution over a decade and gives the rather silly impression that George VI got over the worst areas of his stutter immediately prior to giving the war declaration. That’s Mississippi Burning-style dramatization stuff, and Winston Churchill somehow manages to get shoehorned in to boot, but what really matters here is the film as an intensely personal document of fellow sufferer. How much of the King character this film gives us really is the king, and how much is Seidler, is left up to us to decide.
In direct contrast to the broad sweep seen in most period dramas, in particular those dealing with royalty, The King’s Speech is an impressively streamlined and simple production, most of its action entirely indoors and in small rooms with little of the location porn you expect from a film dabbling in this subject matter. There’s some story clutter, especially in regard to the aforementioned Shakespeare in Love-like walk-ons by British People You May Have Heard Of, but it’s still pleasing to see a film like this keep things so modest. Hooper’s somewhat overbearing motif is to bring the King’s feelings of alienation and claustrophobia to the audience’s direct and constant attention, hence a lot of wide angle lenses and the rather strange framing of some shots. Less problematic and distracting is the repeated emphasis on radio’s broad influence, which without strain is sold to an audience largely unaccustomed to the idea of radio as a primary information source — but not at all alien to the idea of technology quickly overtaking politics, culture, and life.
With that said, even with Hooper’s careful contextualizing and all of the buildup and tearful release at the moment of truth, one is struck by what seems like a lack of real relevance to much of anything by the end of the film. It’s true we don’t need at this point in movie history any further films about World War II, but as the film closes and lets itself cop at last to an excessive sentimentality, is it wrong to consider the dread and death hanging over the entire continent and wonder why we’re celebrating — celebrating — a war declaration? The triumph may be real enough in the palace, but the crux of the buzzing activity in the final half hour is really a horrendously bleak and ominous turning point that isn’t ever acknowledged or admitted as such; even Gone with the Wind had a better sense of irony than that.
A certain bias will come into play as we regard the acting in the film, which I find good but not spectacular, at least in part because I find the two leads, Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth, both rather underwhelming in general. Rush’s grinning-savior persona isn’t convincing to me here or anywhere, and Firth comes across here as a consistently inexpressive brute with occasional flashes of strained humanity; he seems like neither a king nor a person. But this, again, may be a consequence of my lack of esteem for these actors, which I’m sure is my problem more than theirs. On the other hand, Helena Bonham Carter gives the future Queen Mother a fantastically energetic read, exuding so much warmth it’s a bit hard to swallow! Her turn gives us a gentle portrait of the most loving, supportive spouse one can imagine — to the point one wonders if it can be taken at face value.
None of the carping matters really, because at the surface and in the fully surrendered experience The King’s Speech is fabulous entertainment that doesn’t do much artistically because it doesn’t have to. The thing runs like a machine, and it’s all thanks to the wit and absence of baggage in the screenplay. As a bonus, it gives a voice to anyone with a stutter, or stage fright, or any such obstacle. You only consider for a second how most people with such difficulties haven’t the vast support network of a monarch to deal with them, and that the stories of such folks are probably far more fascinating and inspiring, but then you settle back into your seat and turn your brain off again. Just like the Academy!