It’s often underestimated that film, as well as being primarily a visual art, is incredibly concerned with the verbal. Cinema has provided us with some memorable rhetoric; Rutger Hauer’s dying speech to Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ demonic drawl in There Will Be Blood. We hang on every word, transfixed by each subtlety of intonation and quirk of delivery. You might ask, then, how is this relevant to a film where the central protagonist struggles to string more than two words together? But The King’s Speech utterly compels because of this.
Ostensibly, the film tells the story of Colin Firth’s George VI (or Bertie, as he is known to his nearest and dearest) and his path to the throne of England whilst battling a stammer. A reluctant King, George only came to the throne because his brother, David (Guy Pearce) was forced to abdicate due to his marriage to Wallis Simpson. Worried for her husband and the amount of public speaking he will be required to do, George’s wife, Elizabeth (a plucky Helena Bonham Carter) goes to see Geoffrey Rush’s Australian vocal coach, Lionel Logue, whose odd and controversial methods are the King’s last chance to overcome his speech impediment.
However, The King’s Speech is really about the power of language – exacerbated by the advent of radio. Bertie’s dad, King George V (Michael Gambon) knowingly quips that all royalty used to have to do was look good in uniform and try not to fall off a horse. But now “we invade people’s homes and are forced to ingratiate ourselves with them. We’ve become actors!”
Just like what Frost/Nixon (and the television interviews on which it was based) did with the close-up, showcasing television’s ability to reveal a person’s face in microscopic detail, so radio and The King’s Speech display the suspense of a pause, the anxious wavering on a word during one of Bertie’s many awkward linguistic tussles.
Part of the film’s charm is the interplay between the King and Lionel as they prepare for each of Bertie’s ordeals. Similarly to director Tom Hooper’s previous film, The Damned United, which dealt with Leeds United manager Brian Clough and Peter Taylor’s ‘old married couple’ friendship (and , thankfully, wasn’t really about football), his latest plays on the whimsical bickering of the vocal coach and patient. Lionel brings the King down a few class pegs or two as he subjects his Royal Highness to rolling around on the floor and swearing quite a lot; Logue informs him that “defecation slips off the tongue freely.”
Bertie begins to see his sessions as escapes from royal servitude. He gets to build model planes that Lionel’s sons are making, which he could never do as a child, and starts to open up to Lionel who acts as part vocal coach, part councilor. Firth and Rush consistently make the friendship witty, believable and sincere. Firth, particularly, does a supreme job at creating pathos for the monarch as even a bedtime story to his children proves a struggle.
The King’s Speech is a brilliantly acted and beautifully shot film, that’s also surprisingly tense. With the outbreak of the Second World War, King George is required to speak to the nation to boost morale. The end climax sees the King solemnly and nervously walking through Buckingham Palace to his recording booth as if he’s approaching the gallows. It’s incredible how much tension Hooper milks from someone simply strolling down a corridor. The King’s Speech is, in a word, class.
Good: Firth is fantastic as the stuttering monarch and Hooper’s direction is never less than effortlessly beautiful.
Bad: Some may find the final image a little clichéd.