The King’s Speech
I’d always had something of a soft spot for Colin Firth, ever since I saw him play Mr Darcy in the BBC’s 1995 TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Since then, he’s moreorless played the same character again and again. It made a refreshing change to watch his performance in A Single Man last year, a film which genuinely illicited the exclamation “My God, he can ACT!” from me whilst still in the cinema. I firmly believe he was robbed at the Oscars, but really, it was fairly obvious that a subtle yet powerful performance of a gay Englishman would always lose when placed against an alcoholic American musician – the Oscars selection committee are dreadfully predictable in such matters.
No matter. Firth’s response is firm yet clear, as he plays George VI in The King’s Speech. You wouldn’t think that a film about a man’s struggle to overcome a speech impediment would make particularly compelling viewing, yet Tom Hooper has turned the spare script of a stage play into an engaging, and often funny, film. Firth infuses the frustrations of the stuttering George with a degree of pathos and humanity, as he struggles to deal with the public speaking commitments of a member of the Royal Family. After an abortive attempt to make his first speech for radio, the Queen Mother (played here by Helena Bonham-Carter) enlists the services of Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). His methods are unorthodox, and he insists on calling the Duke of York ‘Bertie’, but there’s no denying that he gets results.
The film touches on matters of English history, including the abdication of Edward VIII and the early days of World War II. Many Republicans will no doubt point at the behaviour of George V toward his sons, or the attitude of Edward VIII toward his duties, as being reason enough to abolish the monarchy, but I think that would be to miss the bigger picture. At its heart, The King’s Speech is a tale about a man struggling to overcome the criticisms and fears of his childhood in order to fulfil his duties as an adult. “Underdog done good” is a theme done to death in the US, most notably through the interminable parade of sport movies, so why should the UK not offer its own example from within the halls of the Establishment?
The stellar cast (which includes Derek Jacobi, Jennifer Ehle, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon and Timothy Spall, among others) put in fabulous performances, although the main focus is always on the relationship between George VI and Logue as the Royal attempts to negotiate interactions with a commoner while retaining the dignity of his status. There is a great degree of warmth and affection in portrayal of the relationship between both George VI and the Queen Mother, and George VI and his daughters (Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret), which serve to humanise George and remind us that he might be a privileged member of the aristocracy, but a noble birthright doesn’t come without its downsides.
Firth is often shot in the corner of the frame, with the world surrounding him. It makes him look a little lost, and the camera often looks down on him, as though George feels he is constantly looked down upon due to his stammer. When speaking, he is framed in close-up to show how tight his world is, how under pressure he feels, and how much scrutiny he is under. It is only at the end of the film after he has done his landmark speech to the nation that the camera lifts to give him room to breathe.
It’s a beautifully shot film, with a pithy, well-paced script. It produces the sort of gentle, heart warming glow that the afore-mentioned sports movies go for, although their tendency to overdo the pathos and ramp up the volume on ‘adversity’ tends to make them overshoot ‘heartwarming’ and land them firmly into ‘heartburn’. If Firth doesn’t finally get his Oscar, then there is something very, very wrong with Hollywood.