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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews The King’s Speech

January 28th, 2011

I really can’t believe how much I enjoyed director Tom Hooper’s new film The King’s Speech!

I was a bit dubious going in.  I’d heard that the film was good, but it looked like a classic “Oscar-bait” type of movie to me.  You know: period setting, famous actors, a character struggling to overcome a disability as well as his own personal demons, etc.  Didn’t strike me as the type of film I’d be at all interested in.

But I’m glad I decided to go see it, because I think the film is marvelous.

The King’s Speech opens in 1925, when Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth), gives the closing speech at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley.  The speech goes poorly, because Prince Albert is afflicted with a terrible stammer.  Though the Prince has grown weary of dealing with doctors who have been unable to help him, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) arranges a meeting with a speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  At first the Prince is put-off by Lionel’s casual manner and techniques, but gradually the two men form a strong working relationship and, possibly, a friendship.  Things grow more complicated when Albert’s father, King George V, dies, and Albert’s elder brother, Prince Edward, decides to abdicate the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorced American woman.  This leaves Albert in line for the throne, and about to face a terrible threat to his nation: the rise of Hitler.

The King’s Speech rests squarely upon the shoulders of Mr. Firth and Mr. Rush.  Their complex relationship is the central dynamic of the piece, and it is because of the enormous skill of those two actors that I found the story as compelling as I did.  (Though the smart script by David Seidler helps enormously, too!)  Both Mr. Firth and Mr. Rush craft layered, nuanced performances, and I found their interactions with one another to be electric.  There are some enormous world events that form the backdrop to this story, but despite that I found the most dramatic scenes of the film to be the ones when it was just those two men, sitting in a room, talking.

There’s a strong dramatic arc to Prince Albert’s story, but I was pleased that the filmmakers didn’t ladle on the drama too heavily (a cardinal sin of the “Oscar-bait” types of movies I mentioned above).  Indeed, the story is told with a fairly light touch — there’s a lot of humor in the tale.

I’m all for films where the characters are unlikable, broken people — that can lead to some really complex, engaging story-lines — but I think The King’s Speech is well-served by just how like-able all of the main characters are.  We invest in “Bertie” (Prince Albert) and Lionel, and truly want them to succeed.  In addition, Helena Bonham Carter is delightful and very funny as Albert’s wife Elizabeth.  Ms. Bonham Carter plays her with an always-slightly-amused glint in her eye.  I loved the scene, late in the film, when Lionel’s startled wife finally meets her.  Elizabeth is so gentle and kind that it’s a really touching moment.   (In yesterday’s review of The Kids Are All Right, I wrote about how great it was to see Mia Wasikowska playing a normal human being, separated from all of the Tim Burton weirdness that surrounded her in Alice in Wonderland. Well, that goes double for Helena Bonham Carter.  She’s had some big, showy roles in Tim Burton’s last several films, and of course also in the Harry Potter series, but it’s wonderful to see her once again playing a sweet, normal woman.)

I was also quite pleased (and credit here again must go to David Seidler’s sharp script), that Lionel’s sessions with Prince Albert didn’t build to some sort of big emotional epiphany that resulted in all of his problems being solved.  I feel that a lot of these sorts of movies over-simplify characters’ problems to some simple psychological explanation, and once the character(s) confront that deep dark issue from their childhood and have a good cry, all their problems are fixed.  That sort of ludicrous over-simplification always bugs me!  Luckily, The King’s Speech is much more sophisticated than that.  Yes, Lionel does suspect that Prince Albert has personal issues that are linked with his stammering problem, and his efforts to enable Albert to confront those truths are a large part of his treatment strategy (and hence, the story of the film).  But I was really pleased to see how much time the film spent illuminating the more mechanical paths that Lionel used in treating Albert.  Even in the climactic scene in which Albert (now King George VI) must deliver his famous speech to inform his nation that they are once again at war with Germany, we see Lionel working to build Albert’s confidence but also to remind him of tips to aid his delivery (how he can use an “ah” sound to lead into a difficult word, how he can use his pauses to build the drama of the speech, etc.).

Earlier this week it was announced that The King’s Speech had received twelve Oscar nominations, including best picture, best director, and acting nominations for Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter.  I don’t put too much stock in these sorts of awards (you’ll notice when I post my Best Movies of 2010 list next week that many of the films on MY top-ten list received NO notices from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at all!), but I can certainly see why The King’s Speech would receive such praise.  It’s a splendid film.

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