Wednesday, January 05, 2011

THE KING'S SPEECH - wonderful pantomime

In the mid-1930s, Britain was still a proud Empire that ranged from the Caribbean territories in the West, via East Africa, to India, Australia and Hong Kong. But the home country was still reeling from the Great Depression and fearful of the second Great War in living memory. The Empire needed leadership, both from its politicians who had the real political power, and from its monarchy, whose job was to inspire loyalty and imperial unity in the face of adversity. But the politicians fell grip to appeasement, and bar Winston Churchill, utterly failed to anticipate Hitler's aggression. As for the monarchy King George V was dying; and his son, David. the short-lived King Edward VIII, abdicated so that he could marry the scandal-ridden divorcee Wallis Simpson. Thus, David's younger brother, Bertie, the Duke of York (father of the current Queen Elizabeth) was thrust onto the throne as King George VI, with the task of leading his country and his Empire into World War Two. Pity then, the man, courageous and dutiful, but hampered by a debilitating stammer induced, the movie argues, by a shockingly loveless and brutal childhood.

THE KING'S SPEECH is, then, the story of how Bertie (Colin Firth) persevered through humiliation and fear to become technically more accomplished at public speaking and emotionally able to take on the burden of monarchy. He did this, the film posits, through sheer courage; the love of a good woman (Helena Bonham-Carter); and through the advice and friendship of the radically informal, Antipodean speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). 

So here's the thing. THE KING'S SPEECH is basically a really well made and emotionally involving film. It comes to our screens dripping with critical praise and smothered with awards. Director Tom Hooper eschews the typical lavish costume drama production design and shooting style, instead trapping his King in fog-bound streets and narrow corridors. The cast give fine performances. The script is beautifully written. I was deeply caught up in the drama. But, as I write this review some days later, I am less impressed by the film. Because, essentially, I was in the realms of pantomime cinema.

Colin Firth is, after all, playing an essentially Good Man.  Firth's Bertie is understandably angry; occasionally very funny; a warm, loving father and a dutiful king. He is an under-dog hero without faults, played by an actor at the top of his game.His wife is also without fault in this film - determined to help her husband, utterly sympathetic to him, charming to commoners, but conscious of maintaining her regal authority. And even Lionel Logue is a man without fault and dripping with charm! He is wonderfully brash, believes in Bertie's essentially goodness, and constantly helps him, even when Bertie sounds off at him. Even the minor characters are basically charming and lovely.  Logue's wife (Jennifer Ehle) in a few short scenes is a picture of calm concern and wise advice.  The horribly politically wrong Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin (a marvelous cameo from Anthony Andrews) is noble and humble in his failure.  And even Chrurchill (Timothy Spall), the towering personality who seemed to win the War single-handedly through sheer bloody-mindedness and brilliance, is humanised by the admission of a youthful speech impediment. 

And what of the villains of the piece? They too are essentially mono-dimensional. David (Guy Pierce with a pitch-perfect voice impersonation) is basically a bullying, selfish cad, utterly beguiled by the domineering Wallis. The late King George V (Michael Gambon) and his wife are distant, uncaring, bullying parents. And Derek Jacobi's Archbishop of Canterbury is an obsequious passive-aggressive arse.

So there you have it:  THE KING'S SPEECH is the ne plus ultra of feel-good movies, with the added bonus of being about glamorous royals. It comes complete with palaces and princesses - evil villains, unimpeachable heroes, the love that conquers all, the buddy movie, the under-dog story. And the biggest signal that we are in the realms of blatant emotional manipulation? The lazy use of the adagio from Beethoven's 7th symphony and the adagio from Beethoven's 5th piano sonata as we hear the King give his final, triumphant speech and wave to his adoring public on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

THE KING'S SPEECH played Telluride, Toronto, London and the AFI 2010. It was released last year in the USA, Canada, Greece, Spain, Australia and New Zealand. It is released on January 7th in the UK, on January 21st in Estonia and Finland, and on January 28th in Slovenia, Iceland and Italy. It will be released in France on February 2nd, in Hungary on February 3rd and in Brazil and Sweden on February 4th. It will be released in Portugal on February 10th and in Germany and the Netherlands on February 17th. It will be released in Russia on March 17th.

At the British Independent Film Awards, THE KING'S SPEECH won Best Film, Screenplay, Actor (Colin Firth), Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush), Actress (Helena Bonham Carter). It was nominated for Best Director, Supporting Actor (Guy Pierce) and Production Design (Eve Stewart). It has also been nominated for seven Golden Globes and four SAG awards.


  1. BillFenner196715/1/11 3:34 PM

    I just came back from the cinema. My initial reaction was, like you, it's a wonderful film. However, I also feel - like you - that perhaps in the coming days its faults will gradually emerge in my mind.

    Perhaps there should have been more about why exactly did Bertie have this stammer. As Logue points out numerous times, it was linked to his childhood and upbringing. I suppose in reality (pure speculation here) that no member of the royal family would open up about his love/hate relationship with dear old King daddy. But for drama - why not? Why not explore this more than what was shown in the film. The whole weight of expectation is something any person, royal or common, can relate to. Think there was more to mine there.

    As for the lack of real villains. It's true that his brother and Mrs Simpson were rather silly. And by the same token, the protagonists were all too good.

    That said, the real villain seemed to be legacy itself. Or rather, the burden of circumstance. The sympton of this malady is a stammer, but the root cause for Bertie was that he was born into royalty. This may just be the socialist in me - this continues from what I've already touched on above - more could have or should have been made of this, especially from a 21st century perspective on the role of a monarchy in the modern world. The stammer of speech as the stammer of social progress?

    Anyway, I did thoroughly enjoy the film. For my money, in my top three for 2010.

  2. Unfortunately this just isn't that film - it's far too sanitised. Basically, it's just heritage cinema, albeit of a far superior sort than that which produced The Young Victoria. They aren't really interested in real politics except to show the condescension of the aristocracy toward the working classes. It's the same sort of royalist propaganda which you get in Downtown Abbey. The basic message of which was that the upper classes were a marvellous bunch of caring employers who held the nation's heritage in trust. I think the best attitude is to shelve political interest and just enjoy the costumes and the acting!

  3. BillFenner196715/1/11 6:10 PM

    Yep. You know, as soon as I finished typing my original comments and hit the submit button, the thought occured to me: It is what it is.

    I read that the writer, David Seidler, was afflicted by a stammer as a youth and longed to tell this story. Even waiting until the Queen Mum died (if what I read on the internet is to be believed, that is). So I can see that this wasn't meant to be anything more than a story about speech, the power of it when used well and how debilitating it is when one is incapable of its fluency.

    So ... all in all, a lovely little movie. Never pretended to be anything more, did it? Which is fine. It succeeded at being what it set out to be - which is more than I can say for some of the dumbest comic book action movies being made by Hollywood these days!

  4. Randy Andy27/3/11 7:29 PM

    I watched it last night at Vienna’s Artis cinema and was rather disappointed. A nice feel-good movie indeed, but historically inaccurate and (deliberately, since the movie wouldn’t have worked otherwise) dishonest in various regards. Spoiled it for me.

    (I agree with many of the critical assessments found here:

  5. Oh Andy I quite agree that the factual history is nonsense. This is most definitely heritage cinema and must be judged accordingly. Does it work as pantomime? Yes. But one doesn't look to it for historical veracity any more than one looks to HBO's The Tudors!

  6. Randy Andy27/3/11 7:59 PM

    You shatter my world ;)