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It perhaps started with The Queen, continued with Young Victoria and now achieves the most intimate glimpse inside the royal camp to date with The King’s Speech.
Each of these films features a mesmerizing central performance. Although Speech requires shared billing, with no disrespect to Geoffrey Rush‘s spot-on work here, Colin Firth, following up on his Oscar-nominated role in A Single Man, now can claim a place among Britain’s finest film actors with his performance as the man who became King George VI.
The film is a sure winner in the British Isles and many former colonies. How its most rebellious and historically challenged colony will react when the Weinstein Co. releases the film domestically Nov. 24 is hard to gauge. Perhaps only decent box office can be anticipated.
The thing about Bertie, as George V’s second son was called by the family, is that he never is going to be king. A good thing too because he suffers from a terrible stammer and what nowadays would be called low self-esteem. Then history conspires against him.
But this is getting ahead of the story, ably written by David Seidler and directed by Tom Hooper. While dad (Michael Gambon) remains on his throne and his elder brother, David (Guy Pearce), gadding about as an international playboy, Bertie (Firth) has to give a speech. He looks like he is about to attend his own execution, and words stick in his throat so badly that what comes out is unintelligible.
His wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), seeks out speech therapists but only disaster results. Then she stumbles onto Lionel Logue (Rush).
The movie establishes him as an eccentric, lower-class and somewhat ignoble version of Henry Higgins. He and his family live in a large, oddly wallpapered flat that contains only a fraction of the furniture necessary to fill it. What’s worse, he’s Australian and a failed ham actor specializing in eloquent though thoroughly bad Shakespeare. Yet even when he realizes a royal is summoning him, he insists that it’s “his castle, his rules”: The royal must take his lessons in Lionel’s home.
Thus the movie sets up an Odd Couple dynamic that, like the famous Neil Simon play/movie/TV series, measures out comedy and drama in nearly even doses. Bertie and Lionel — the therapist insists on a first-name basis — discover common ground, quarrel bitterly, share a drink, make a breakthrough, then break off all contact. At the root of Bertie’s problem, it gradually emerges, is a wretched childhood, no matter how rich and glorious it might seem to outsiders.
Now comes history’s little trick. Brother David eventually becomes Edward VIII; you know, the irresponsible sap who decides he’d rather marry a well-traveled, twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson, than be king of England. Following his brother’s abdication, Bertie becomes George VI, which means a lot of speech giving — especially on the eve of World War II.
The movie lets everything build to George VI’s first wartime speech. In the early days of the wireless — long before television, of course — this means a king can stand alone in a room with only a microphone and speech coach to get him through those three minutes (egged on by Beethoven’s mighty Seventh Symphony). It’s an understandably moving moment, but the film has nicely paved the way with long therapy sessions, conversations and comic fights between its couple.
A king is made into a commoner and a commoner — no, worse, an Aussie — is made into a pro that for all his lack of pedigree can rule enunciation, diction and language.
Who knows how close any of this comes to historical fact; the filmmakers’ main source appears to be the Logue family. It doesn’t really matter, though, because something about all this feels right, as do the characters.
Firth doesn’t just make a British king vulnerable and insecure, he shows the fierce courage and stamina beneath the insecurities that will see him through his kingship. It’s not just marvelous acting, it’s an actor who understands the flesh-and-blood reality of the moment and not its history. It’s an actor who admires his character not in spite of his flaws but because of them.
Rush is absolutely wonderful, and Hooper shoots him with all sorts of angles, lighting and strange positions that makes him look like an alien landed in 1930s London. Nothing much impresses him, and he is supremely confident in his own expertise, even when challenged by a star pupil and his coterie of advisers. He won’t yield an inch.
Carter is a revelation here despite a long career as a leading lady. She makes Bertie’s wife into not just a warm and caring soul but a witty and attractive woman who understands her husband much better than he does himself.
There are many supporting performances, but many, alas, are waxwork. Perhaps the worst belongs to the usually reliable Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill.
The production is a strong one. No one can do this sort of thing like the Brits. Oops, composer Alexandre Desplat is French. Oh well, in this instance let’s make him an honorary Australian.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival (The Weinstein Co.)
Production: The Weinstein Co. and U.K. Film Council in association with Momentum Pictures, Aegis Film Fund, Molinare London, Filmnation Entertainment present a See Saw Films/Bedham Production
Cast: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, Timothy Spall, Derek Jacobi, Jennifer Ehle, Anthony Andrews, Claire Bloom, Eve Best
Director: Tom Hooper
Screenwriter: David Seidler
Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Gareth Unwin
Executive producers: Geoffrey Rush, Tim Smith, Paul Brett, Mark Foligno, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein
Director of photography: Danny Cohen
Production designer: Eve Stewart
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Costume designer: Jenny Beavan
Editor: Tariq Anwar
No rating, 118 minutes
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