The King’s Speech is a film that doesn’t really belong in the coarse, pimped-up, dumbed-down world of 2011. The script is laced with respect; respect for government, for leaders and, most surprisingly of all, respect for the power of words.
Director Tom Hooper also has respect for actors, and has entrusted his low-tech production to some of the most able talents in the business. It’s a brave gamble in this age of 3-D zombies, but the risk has paid off as this stately and sedate film has been embraced by audiences and showered with award nominations.
Despite regal and historic trappings, the story is about as simple as a feature length script can be. Set in England in the late 1930s, the film chronicles the efforts of Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) to overcome a speech impediment that has plagued him since childhood. The Windsor boys are occasionally obliged to make speeches on the wireless - that infernal contraption - and Albert’s stuttering and stammering is anathema to this new medium. The far-flung English empire is already in jeopardy, and a member of the Royal Family incapable of uttering a coherent thought won’t do much to assure its disgruntled subjects.
Desperate, the Duke and Lady Elisabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) consult Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian immigrant who ekes out a living as an unlicensed speech therapist – not the most promising career choice in 1936- in a crumbling east-end flat. Logue’s unconventional techniques, learned from rehabilitating soldiers severely injured in WWI, cause friction between the two men. Progress is slow and with the Nazis marching to war, the Duke has to cope with a number of distractions. Among them, his brother King Edward VIII (Guy Pierce) is about to abdicate and marry that tacky Simpson woman from Baltimore (Eve Best). Albert must now assume the throne in one of Britain’s darkest hours, and the smooth delivery of inspiring speeches will be more important than ever.
Firth, a master of deceptive understatement, plunges to his greatest depths of withdrawal as the shy, self-conscious Albert. His fragile demeanor contrasts nicely with Rush’s classical theatrical bombast and, indeed, the pair seem to feed off each other. There is a genuine and astonishingly subtle chemistry between them that stems from performances that are dialed-in exactly right. Director Hooper, known mainly for the HBO series John Adams, understands the dynamics of ensemble acting better than just about any director working today, and has a wonderful ability to design shots around the alchemy of his talented thespians. This sounds simple and straight-forward, but the vast majority of directors, including your loyal correspondent back in his working days, tend to do the exact opposite.
While the film is crammed with historically important, larger-than-life characters, Hooper goes out of his way to keep the presentation calm and stiff-upper-lipped. There are no eureka breakthroughs or Rocky style triumphant montages. The new King will only be able to overcome his difficulties through laborious focus on the task at hand, and it’s going to be a tough slog.
There is hesitation to proclaim this a great film; it plays much like a well financed episode of Masterpiece Theatre, but without the emotional involvement the latter usually elicits. In fact, like the Royal Family, The King’s Speech is oddly cold and formal. If Hooper can be accused of a misstep, he’s over-protected his film from emotion and sentimentality.
In one aspect, The King’s Speech can rightfully be considered a feel-good movie. At a time when our multiplexes are replete with raunchy offerings designed to make a quick buck from the cheapening of human experience, the positive reaction this quiet, literate film has received from critics and audiences is a pleasant surprise. It’s almost enough to restore our faded hope in the American public.