Originally Posted December 28th, 2010
Albert Frederick Arthur George did not have an easy life growing up. He was plagued with health issues and was constantly tormented by his older brother Edward. His father, who left him in the care of various nannies, expected greatness from him, even though Albert's older brother was likely to inherit the family legacy. Although meek as a boy, Albert eventually began a career in the navy, seeing limited action during the First World War due in part to his poor health. He would eventually attain the rank of Commander in the Royal Navy shortly after the untimely death of his youngest brother John at the age of 13. In 1920 he met Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the woman who would become his future wife and the mother of his two children, Elizabeth and Margaret. Albert entered into the latter half of his life as a representative of his father's estate, seemingly content with where his life had taken him. But then something unexpected happened. Only a year after the death of his father in 1936, Edward made the unprecedented act of resigning as head of the family estate in order to marry, leaving Albert in charge. Of a kingdom. The United Kingdom.
The King's Speech premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in early September of this year to rave reviews. It would win the People's Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival and I was not pleased. 2010 was the year that delved deeper into dreams than ever before, explored the too-good-to-be-true origins of the internet's first billionaires and gave us a raw detective mystery set in the meth-addled Ozarks. The last thing I wanted was another fucking period piece about the British royalty to come in and win over critics the way so many others have in recent memory. The fascination that Western society has with the monarchy is odd to say the least and why the Queen adorns most of the contents of my wallet is an entirely different conversation. But look at any news rag and you’re sure to find at least one massive spread about Prince Williams engagement announced more than a month ago. Film critics in particular seem infatuated with royalty, just look at the scads and scads of awards picked up by films like Elizabethand The Queen. I've always felt that the gravitas of these pieces often outweigh their merits as a narrative, falling back on the work of the actors (and often costume design) more than the actual plot. Hell Judi Dench, a tremendously skilled actress in her own right, managed to pick up a best supporting actress Oscar for playing Queen Elizabeth I for 8 minutes.
So it is with great joy that I tell you that The King's Speech is in many ways the antithesis of your average regal biography. As the Duke of York, Albert shows qualities hardly befitting of a king; he's short tempered and is easily cowed by both his brother and his father. It's easy to be caught off guard when he spends a solid minute purposefully reciting every expletive he can think of, because it's, well, funny. Humour is often in deathly short supply in historically accurate period pieces and especially when people of such standing are involved. But the film is more interested in George's journey to becoming a king then his action's as one and it's that journey that's simultaneously charming and soul stirring. The film shatters the veil surrounding the monarchy and shows them as regular people asked to become extraordinary ones, a task which not everyone is given equal chance. Among Albert's many personal defects, he developed a terrible stammer at a young age, leaving him a largely ineffectual public speaker. The film opens with a disastrous address at Wembley stadium, a scene that recalls director Tom Hooper's The Damned Untied, another film about a leader, in his case football manager Brian Clough, who must face down personal flaws before attaining true greatness. Albert's inability to address the people is compounded by the advent of radio and recording devices, and the prospect of a king who can't address his people largely spurs Albert's wife Lady Elizabeth to seek a speech therapist.
Geoffrey Rush plays Lionel Logue, an unconventional speech therapist who, unlike Albert, has dreams of being a monarch, although his are confined to the stage. Logue, though initially struck that his meeting with misses Johnson is actually with the future Queen of England, sets out to treat Albert, but only under the condition that he be treated as a person, not as a prince. The relationship between Albert and Lionel, one royalty, the other the son of a brewer, is where much of the film's humour comes from and it's delightful to see Rush's playful performance bounce off of Firth's initially reserved personality. With much of the film portraying the two’s various speaking sessions, The King’s Speech could have been easily mired in static back and forth but Hooper knows how to highlight the centre of attention in a conversation, particularly, Firth's struggle to simply uphold his end of it. Logue's unorthodox training methods lend themselves well to some very creative montages and moments of small triumph and failure highlighted by pronounced camera movements. The film is at times sluggish in its development of the pair's relationship and much of the more biting humour is reserved for the first half but as Logue's treatment begins to become more psychological than linguistic, the gravity of Albert's situation becomes more and more apparent. As a king, he has no real power beyond representing the voice of his people and with the rise of Nazi Germany, the need for a leader who can rally his people increasingly dire.
I hope you don't think me a hypocrite to say that the film largely stands out for its sublime performances. Firth range covers a wide breadth, and it’s made all the more remarkable by his constantly changing speech patterns. Joke all you will about handicaps as Oscar bait, this is a case where the “gimmick” actually punctuates the skills of the actor, as Firth shows Albert as both a man unprepared to handle his legacy and a king ready to lead his people, one frustrating word at a time. In particular, the scene in which Albert reveals his harsh upbringing to the commoner who's gone from his secret therapist to his only friend showcases the work that garnered Firth a nomination last year and almost certainly a statue this year. Rush plays Logue with enough energy to inject just a hint of whimsy into the film but never at the expense of the otherwise sombre tone. Finally, Helena Bonham Carter shines as Lady Elizabeth, a woman who has been learning what it means to be royalty since she married Albert. Carter’s been doing great work for years now and she’s as brilliant here as her role is brief.
Historical pieces often have a bad habit of overstaying their welcome so the fact that The King’s Speech left me wanting more is something I altogether didn’t expect. It’s easy to lump crowd-pleasing films together because it’s often the way a film ends that sticks out, but here’s one crowd pleaser that dares to show a different side to figures we ultimately don’t know all that well. In the titular speech King George gives at the outbreak of WWII, he says he wishes to address his people as though he were in their homes and this was indeed the first step towards the modern monarchy. We know more about our royalty’s personal lives than any previous generation, and for better or worse, technology, like this film, has revealed them as who they are; people who must weigh the greatest of privilege with the greatest of expectations. But still just people.
5 out of 5
Directed by Tom Hooper
2010, U.K., U.S.A