Anyone who’s been following modern cinema has probably heard of “The King’s Speech” – currently the frontrunner for “Best Picture” at the upcoming Academy Awards. A beautifully crafted historical drama, it explores a side of British history not often discussed by Americans.
“The King’s Speech” is the story of King George VI (Colin Firth), a monarch who never expected to inherit the throne. Born simply “Prince Albert, Duke of York” he suffers from a severe stammer that cripples his ability to speak in public. (Several agonizing early scenes demonstrate his struggle to speak.) After Albert repeatedly fails to conquer his stammer via conventional means, his faithful wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) seeks out the services of therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Progress is slow, but definite…although Albert is put to the test far sooner than expected. When his brother, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), abdicates the throne in order to marry a divorced woman, Albert becomes King of England. And with World War II on the horizon, he is quickly thrust into the public spotlight.
It’s a simple premise, and one that director Tom Hooper handles deftly. The story of Albert’s slow, laborious journey is fascinating and inspiring on a variety of levels. His initially combative relationship with Lionel eventually matures into a deep, sincere friendship – an anchor that steadies him during the dark days at the beginning of World War II.
The acting in the film is truly stellar, and almost certainly the reason for its massive critical and commercial success. Firth, Bonham Carter, and Rush utterly overcome typecasting, depicting strong characters vastly unlike those they’ve played in other movies. Albert is no rugged, self-assured Mr. Darcy – he’s a conflicted, morally sound leader lacking personal confidence. Elizabeth isn’t a bizarre Tim Burton caricature – she’s a gentle, caring wife and mother who deeply loves her husband. And Lionel is by no means a villainous Davy Jones figure – he’s a witty, sympathetic companion who helps Albert attain his full potential. The three leading characters are the film’s emotional core, and all three actors truly outdo themselves.
“The King’s Speech” sounds wonderful on paper – and indeed, it’s a superbly made film. However, I found the film lacking a certain resonance. Perhaps it was merely the fact that “The King’s Speech” has been widely hyped as one of 2010-2011’s best movies, and nothing could possibly live up to such high expectations…but personally, I would have appreciated a slightly warmer tone. Everything is handled very historically and clinically, and little attention is given to Albert the man (as opposed to Albert the king). More scenes exclusively between Albert and Elizabeth would have gone a long way towards establishing that necessary chemistry – I would have liked to see how Albert’s stammer impacted his relationship with his wife (or even if it did at all). While it’s clear that they deeply love each other, I would have appreciated a stronger dynamic between them.
Much has been made of the film’s use of harsh language. In context, it is handled appropriately – Lionel observes that Albert doesn’t stutter when he swears, and uses this insight to help advance his therapy. This may be a controversial stance, but I agree with Roger Ebert that “The King’s Speech” should not have received an R rating. There is nothing else objectionable in the film, and the use of profane language serves a serious historic/artistic purpose. In the words of Colin Firth himself, “These are tools, these forbidden words have become momentary tools to get a guy to break out of extreme repression…It doesn’t teach your kids to sprinkle your language with these words or direct them against people.” A PG-13 rating would have been far more appropriate, given the extenuating circumstances of this particular context. (From a worldview standpoint, there’s nothing on which to comment – this isn’t a “message movie” in the religious sense.)
Overall, this is a must-see movie for Anglophiles and anyone who appreciates British history. It’s also the powerful story of a man overcoming his personal weaknesses in order to lead a nation. Certainly recommended.
An excellent historical drama, marred only by a lack of emotional warmth.