dir: Tom Hooper
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This is what you get when Ham (Geoffrey Robertson) meets Wry (Colin Firth): a tasty, award-winning sandwich.
Could there have been a confection more Oscarbaity than this? Was the public so desperately crying out for more cinematic proof that royal personages are so much better than the rest of us? Eventually we’ll be able to put all these films together into a neat collage that exists to convince us only that as commoners, we really do suck compared to all those kings and queens.
And I get enough of that already, thanks for nothing.
The King’s Speech is an almost clever double-meaning title referring both to a specific speech which apparently saved Europe from Hitler, and the speech impediment endured and surmounted by the reluctant eventual heir to the throne, George VI, ably played by Colin Firth. Colin Firth will so win an Oscar for this performance. It’s not because it’s the performance of the year (something so subjective and unmeasurable in any meaningful way so as to be meaningless), or last year, or because this characterisation is so wonderful and crucial to our understanding of the time involved or humanity general.
No, he’ll win because he’s owed. Once these titans of the theatre rack up a sufficient number of nominations, they automatically receive the award, just to keep them happy. Add to that the fact that he’s playing someone overcoming something, and it’s virtually a foregone conclusion.
In the 1930s, Hitler was gearing up a party that would blanket the entirety of Europe with fun times. And what was our main character doing? Stuttering like a motherfucker at every public speaking event, embarrassing the entire nation with his speech impediment. How is this communicated to us, the audience? It’s shown by the manner in which the eyes of the public eventually look away in a mixture of pity and disgust.
And this is the man who’s supposed to compete with Hitler? In quite an amusing scene, Bertie, as we come to know him, watches footage of the Nuremberg rallies, and when asked by his daughter Elizabeth as to what Hitler is saying, Bertie ruefully notes that he’s not sure, but whatever he’s saying, he’s saying it very well.
Bertie’s long-suffering wife, who clearly loves her dear husband but also clearly is ashamed of his stuttering, keeps trying to find speech therapists to help him overcome his problem. One of these incompetents even does that thing with the marbles in the mouth that I haven’t seen since My Fair Lady, which results in the inevitable. It also reminds me of the joke whose punch line is “I just shot the cat,” but let’s not get into it.
She finds a chap called Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian living in London with his family of Aussie stereotypes, who, for no reason we can discern, is going to be the man for the job. Of course, like all sports films, there’s the initial reluctance, then a bravura moment convincing the ‘star’ to take the coach seriously, then a training montage, and then the main event. The King’s Speech follows all these elements of the formula to a t.
What really works the most in this flick is the relationship between the two main characters, being Logue and the eventual king. Rush dials down his notorious propensity for overacting to such a degree that it’s actually enjoyable watching him for once. He plays it straight, without overlaying the acting or the drama too much with his usual mugginess. He still gets a chance to ham it the fuck up by playing, at an audition, Richard the Hunchback, with all the stuff we’ve come to expect and dread, but it’s used, this time, to good effect.
Rush is so good as this character, hectoring and utterly compassionate when circumstances warrant, genuine and coarse when he needs to be, that I don’t think Firth would be getting such plaudits, laurels and hookers thrown at him if it wasn’t for Rush’s tremendous support work. In fact, I’d argue that Logue is probably the main character in the flick anyway. It’s just that he’s not royalty, is he? The development of their complicated relationship, the almost cheeky disregard for royal distance and then its brutal reassertion, is what makes Bertie and Logue a buddy cop action flick for the ages.
Well, maybe not. Of course people are expected to be more interested in the lives of famous, wealthy, royal people, so Bertie, or George VI, as he comes to be known, is meant to be the more compelling character. Not only does he have a dreadful stutter to deal with, but a lisp and a loucheness centuries of inbreeding has only reinforced. Though a grown man, married, and with children, whom he loves, there is a child-like aspect to him, a childishness as well that comes from being waited on hand and foot all your life. And then there are the childhood traumas, related with petulance and drunken sadness in private conversation after his father’s death. Bertie relates with sadness that he knows virtually nothing about the lives of the commoners he supposedly reigns over and speaks, haltingly, for.
So, sure, we can expect a certain amount of psychologising, since Logue’s approach is tied to the belief that speech impediments come from experience, and not from birth. So, at least in theory, we come to understand that Bertie’s problem is more than a physical difference or variation. And that, with time and patient therapy, Bertie could surmount or at least deal with his difficulties once he comes to terms with his ogre father and the crap he endured as a kid.
Oh, and then there’s the terror he feels at the prospect of being king.
He is under no illusions as to what being the head of the House of Windsor, even in the 1930s, really means, since he holds no actual power. And, at least whilst his reprobate, weak, Nazi-loving brother Edward (Guy Pearce) is next in line, Bertie feels relieved that he’s not the direct heir.
But, in one of those moments in history where reality mocks fiction and comes up with something that sounds like it’s out of a drug-addled children’s fair tale, his brother chooses to give up the Empire for the dubious attractions of an American divorcee, and Bertie has to step up to bat against Hitler and the amassed might of the Third Reich.
Firth manages to get all of this across, even with his simpering lisp and Olympian distance from the common man, as well as using a stammer that’s a frustrating to him as it is to us. He manages to combine all the disparate elements of such a complex creature into a believable whole, and for that, and not the obvious Oscarbait, he deserves praise.
Of course only nitpickerly dolts and scolds criticise a flick like this because of the avoidance of adherence to actual history. Of course I don’t expect flicks like this to be documentaries. I don’t even have to buy that had Bertie fucked up that ‘crucial’ speech after the declaration of war, that somehow the world would have fallen into fire and darkness forever and ever amen. But I can still feel the thrill of achievement, the pleasure at surmounting obstacles to succeed at something difficult, that the flick serves up in huge dollops. It does what it does very well. All the choices to do with performance and direction work perfectly to tell this story, and it exists as a compelling movie without having to exist as a document of the times or what happened in the slightest.
In other words, I know how inaccurate it is, and I still didn’t care.
It comes down to being a story about a man facing his demons, with help from a man who becomes his friend, who triumphs for the good of all concerned. Anyone can relate to that, and I think that’s what audiences have responded to more so than the elements about worshipping royals and extending the poisonous and damaging concept of Divine Right that has plagued this world for too long. I personally loathe that kind of crap, but that doesn’t prevent me from appreciating the quality of this flick.
Sure, it’s pandering for awards; sure, it’s almost as if, barring the section on swearing, it was constructed just for grandmothers everywhere so that they can get their royalgasm on, at least until Prince William and Kate’s wedding. But none of that, not even Geoffrey Rush’s presence can prevent this from being one of the more interesting and enjoyable (but very dry) films of 2010.
8 times Guy Pearce’s arch aristocrat character or lack thereof summarises why the French had the right idea back in the 1700s out of 10
“Sorry, I've been terribly busy.”
- “Doing what?”
“Kinging.” – It’s good to be the king, apparently – The King’s Speech.