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.