As good as Jeff Bridges’ performance last year in Crazy Heart was, many believed that the Best Actor Oscar he received for the role was of a more honorary nature, celebrating a career in film rather than that particular mediocrity. Those detractors (myself included) were of an opinion that the statuette really belonged to Colin Firth, whose star turn in Tom Ford’s debut A Single Man was the more deserving recipient of the award, a fact soon to be rectified when the names are called in February next year. His portrayal of the stammering King George VI (Bertie to his chums) in Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech is now without doubt the one to beat come Oscar night. The film has a lot to offer too, delightfully scripted and with a fantastic ensemble cast, it’s also handsomely made with an attention to period detail (both costume and production design) that elevates it above its somewhat slight subject matter and rather conventional story arc.
Beginning in 1925 with the invention of the wireless changing the relationship of the Royals to their subjects, there’s now more required of the family than, as Michael Gambon’s elderly George V puts it “looking regal and not falling off your horse”. Unaccustomed to public speaking due to a debilitating stammer, it’s not something Bertie is in any rush to master, having an elder brother Edward (Guy Pearce) due to inherit the throne in the event of his father’s death. His wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) has other ideas however, introducing him to unorthodox Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) whose disregard for protocol is initially rebuffed but whose unconventional corrective techniques become a matter of necessity after Edward’s abdication and the incoming outbreak of war.
It’s essentially a story of friendship across social barriers, a royal bromance if you will, with Bertie and Lionel’s relationship gradually shifting from awkward and cautious to one of mutual respect and dependence. It’s hardly an original tale in that respect, but has such an overriding charm that it’s hard not to be swept along, even when it teeters on the edge of sentiment. The film has a lovely rhythm to the dialogue despite a few fruity accents (Mr Pearce) and the generally reverential and inoffensive portrayal of its subjects does occasionally offer a cheeky swipe, particularly regarding the relationship between Edward and Wallis Simpson (perhaps Madonna will fill us in on the exact nature of the ‘Shanghai Grip’ in her upcoming biopic).
“I’m trying to make you realise you needn’t be governed by fear”
Most of the laughs comes from Lionel’s ignorance of Royal protocol, his introduction to Elizabeth (posing incognito as a Mrs Johnson) brilliantly so and whilst his breaking down of Bertie’s personal barriers may err towards the broad (particularly the montage of vocal exercises), both actors manage to pull back from the farcical when required, exhibiting great comic timing.
The classical, stately composition within the walls of the palace (the King, in each instance, tends to be centrally positioned) gives way to more left-of-centre framing in Lionel’s artfully distressed studio, although there’s an overuse of slightly fish-eyed close ups to denote psychological tension and anxiety. It’s beautifully textured however, and whilst perhaps sometimes a little overthought in terms of design, certainly evokes a time and place with clarity and confidence, studio and location filming for the most part indistinguishable.
“Have you thought about what you’ll call yourself? Certainly not Albert, too Germanic. How about George? George VI, after your father?”
It’s a film that hinges on the performances though, and aside from Firth’s studious work, there’s much to admire from Bonham Carter and Rush (often almost stealing the film entirely) and Timothy Spall makes a game stab at Winston Churchill. Come Oscar night however, whilst I’d not go so far as to put my money on The King’s Speech for Best Picture, Firth (and perhaps Rush) seem like the safest bets so far.
The King’s Speech – 2010 – United Kingdom, Australia – 110 mins – Dir : Tom Hooper
Screening as the American Express Gala at the London Film Festival on Thursday 21st, Friday 22nd & Saturday 23rd October. Tickets available at www.bfi.org.uk/lff