The King's Speech (2010)

16 January 2011

From its opening images of a microphone and the respect with which it is treated by someone preparing it, Tom Hooper's The King's Speech announces itself as a film all about the importance of performance, of being perceived as strong and worthy even, perhaps, when you're not.

Scripted by David Seidler, the film traces the triumph-over-adversity arc of second heir to the throne Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth), who in 1936 reluctantly became King George VI after his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) abdicated. Less a film of political or monarchical intrigue than one about a curious and personal battle, the film tells us in its opening scene that Albert suffers from a stammer that proves debilitating to the public speeches required of him, and through his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) he seeks the aid of unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).

As the opening speech unfolds, Hooper captures the terror and humiliation of public speaking as it presents itself to Bertie. As he ascends from the narrow, shadowy corridors of Wembley Stadium to the anticipatory quiet of the pitch itself, the waiting crowd is intimidating indeed; as his stammer gets worse, people have the decency to look away embarrassed, but even before Bertie has opened his mouth, a horse lets out a sort of mocking snort for what is to come.

The scene is wonderfully shot, as is the film in general. The room in which Logue carries out his therapy sessions is ugly and remote and somehow painterly; other interiors, such as Logue's living room, match their inhabitants' characters - in this instance, warm, eccentric, dizzying, and not very regal. There aren't many exterior scenes, but the few included have a minimalist, foggy atmosphere, fitting for events on the eve of the second world war.

In making Logue as central a character as his Royal patient - the titular speech is very much a product of the pair of them as a team - Seidler's script allows itself some critical indulgences with respect to Royal tradition. The most obvious is the circumstances under which Albert himself became King George VI, with his brother pressured into abdicating so as to avoid the political and religious scandal resulting from his planned marriage to an already twice-married woman. Less significant contextually, but more humorous, are the early scenes in which Logue insists on being equals with his patients regardless of the title they might hold outside therapy ("My turf, my rules").

Logue knows that, just like any other stammer, Albert's isn't hereditary or biological, but stems from something deeper. Though the film doesn't milk it, there's a poignant and emotionally dramatic moment when Albert, unable to talk of the "personal matters" he says he isn't in therapy for, is asked by Logue to sing aloud the problem that is gnawing at him. The result is absurd, at once amusing and devastating: Rush's contorted, barely controlled heartbreak in the reaction shot is wonderfully real.

For a film about performance and perception and the reputation that hinges on each, the film is blessed with a fine cast. Firth does more than just stammer, concealing and betraying in a single scene - the one, for instance, in which he tells his daughters a story - a deep hurt brimming beneath an outward courage. Opposite him, Rush is simply excellent as a failed thespian whose other strengths he, like his patient, embraces only reluctantly. Between them, the pair are sure to push this essentially schematic if brilliantly done film headlong into the Oscars race.

Other things work less well, such as Hooper's insistence on bringing a musical chord in at an already effective moment, such as that when Bertie listens to the vinyl recording of his own voice quoting from Hamlet. Most odd, however, is the choice of music to accompany the climactic King's Speech itself: given that the new King George VI is addressing a public in preparation of the country's entry into a war with Hitler's Germany, it seems grossly ill-researched to sweep the scene along to Beethoven's 7th Symphony. History and its ironies might be unforgiving, but here they appear doomed to obscurity; given the apparent sincerity of the scene, the choice of music seems unlikely to be some sort of joke on Hooper's part, though it seems equally improbable that the film's main howler will derail those evidently flooding en masse to see it.