In the wake of the widely-predicted Oscar treble for Tom Hooper’s movie – Best Film, Director for Hooper and Actor for Colin Firth – it’s difficult to know what to say about The King’s Speech. The odd contrarian aside, the film was roundly applauded by the critics and audiences flocked to see the tale of George VI’s struggle with his speech impediment in huge numbers, making it the most successful British independent film ever. Its fairly modest budget of £8m – one lessened by the fact the stars took pay cuts to appear in it – has been made back many times over, and the soon-to-be defunct UK Film Council, who helped fund the movie, will surely view this as a fitting, wonderful swansong.
If you don’t already know what Hooper’s film is about you’ve probably been living under a rock, quite frankly. Colin Firth’s Albert Frederick Arthur George, known by family as Bertie, is second-in-line to the throne in 1930s England. Bertie has already made a mess out of several required public and radio speeches, and having tried every speech therapist in London, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) sends him to Geoffrey Rush’s unorthodox Australian Lionel Logue. Logue’s methods begin to improve things, but once Bertie becomes King George VI after his brother’s abdication, Logue must help him speak not just to his family, but to a nation on the brink of war.
Of course, even people who haven’t seen The King’s Speech know its plot, such is the magnitude of its success and its instant integration into mainstream consciousness. But we shouldn’t take this as a sign that it’s populist nonsense, rather that the effect of its story and the skill of its execution have turned a low-budget English movie into a worldwide phenomenon.
As the title and brief above synopsis indicate, this is a film whose success rests almost entirely on the shoulders of its leading man. Firth, as Bertie, is in nearly every scene, and must communicate the combination of frustration, anger and utter anguish that a debilitating stutter would have on someone pressured to speak to the masses. It could easily become a farce in lesser hands, but the English actor is delicate, clever and unsentimental; Bertie doesn’t come across as a fretful heir, but a powerful man whose personal and social development has been constantly hampered by his inability to speak clearly. Firth stutters with his whole body, his eyes and arms as crucial to portraying the effort of forcing a word out as his mouth is, and the effect is hugely impressive. Often, Oscar winners don’t live up to the billing, but here Firth is magnetic in a massively challenging role, and the film succeeds largely as a result of his ceaseless travails.
Bonham Carter and Rush, also Oscar-nominated, are also both excellent in their supporting roles. Rush’s warm, comforting Aussie twang playing nicely against Firth’s staccato, and consequently we can see why he is so good at soothing and helping Bertie. Bonham Carter’s skill lies in her ability to make the most of seemingly fleeting moments – as Bertie painfully struggles through the film’s first speech, her despair is tangible, her hugely expressive features convincing us entirely of Elizabeth’s love for her struggling husband.
Hooper’s direction is very accomplished, although perhaps the least obvious Oscar-winning, his camera able to sweep with regal grandeur across a Scottish estate or linger painfully on the microphone Bertie can’t speak into with impressive dexterity and poise. Where films about the monarchy are so often broad and pompous, Hooper’s direction keeps the plot taut and firmly indoors: almost every major scene takes place in a small room but the Damned United director is able to evoke great emotion in small spaces, just as Firth’s Bertie must do when giving his first wartime speech from a tiny backroom in the film’s climactic scene. Hooper helms the film astutely, certainly, but it’s less noticeably affecting than the performances his camera frames; this is not to say he doesn’t deserve an Oscar, just that his victory is a mite more surprising than the other gongs the film earned.
Does The King’s Speech occasionally fall prey to cliché? Certainly; a montage of a cross-section of English people gathering around their radios feels a little hackneyed, and the jokes about 1930s medical beliefs – most notably smoking – feel a little contrived. Yet these are small complaints to have about a film with such a strong core and which has managed to captivate audiences worldwide despite not seemingly being a film tailored toward box-office glory: when was the last time you can remember a film about the act of talking having the kind of success The King’s Speech has had?
The trick with making an Oscar-winning film is to ensure you also make one that will last the test of time. Everyone remembers Citizen Kane even though How Green Was My Valley won the Best Picture award in 1941, and the unending uproar associated with ‘lesser’ winners like Crash and the odious Titanic means that their infamy exceeds their cinematic merit. But with The King’s Speech, Hooper and Firth have managed to create that rarest of beasts: an affecting, universally relatable drama free from sappiness and worthy of the accolades it receives. And for that, if nothing else, The King’s Speech should be remembered.
Verdict: A worthy Best Picture winner, Hooper’s film plays to the heart without playing to the lowest common emotional denominator. It may sacrifice total historical accuracy for the sake of its plot, but the quality of storytelling is undeniable, and Firth’s central performance will live long in the memory of anyone who sees it. A triumph of heart over head? Perhaps, but also a victory for intimacy over ostentation. Excellent.