Some movies are revered for their technical advancements in the art of motion picture making. Others clearly hark to a simpler time when movies were required to entertain without breaking all the rules or simply flooding the screen with a mind-boggling assortment of anesthetizing special effects. Tom Hooper's The King's Speech (2010) is of this latter ilk; a poignant 'talking picture' whose strength, oddly enough, derives from its dialogue. I say, oddly, because one of the principle performances in the film requires the audience to suffer through a stutter that is as psychologically crippling to its character as it proves a genuine chore to listen to throughout the movie.
Ah, but how well The King's Speech wears its mantel of rigid respectability and how easily it wins our hearts in re-envisioning the proverbial 'underdog makes good' narrative; a throwback to the earliest days of movie-making. The King’s Speech is really a hybrid of the Cinderella story in reverse; the outcast already royalty, though very much feeling more like the upstairs butler to his overbearing father – the king - and even more devoted to his elder brother, the heir apparent. The King’s Speech is the kind of movie Hollywood once made en masse and infrequently endeavored to dapple in with varying degrees of success throughout the 1980s and '90s all the way up to the late 2000. But by 2010 this was a story that could only have been made in Britain with Britons at the helm. The King’s Speech relies almost exclusively on a wellspring of British talent to evoke its narrative eloquence. The film is very cheaply made. It lacks the pageantry of, say, a Merchant/Ivory production or even one made for the BBC. But it never skimps on talent – the one essential to propel its wordy byplay onward to victory.
Colin Firth stars as Prince Albert, Duke of York; younger brother to David (Guy Pearce) the future King of England. Albert suffers from a near paralytic stutter that is exaggerated whenever he becomes anxious. His shortcomings as a great orator are made painfully clear at the start of David Seidler's screenplay, as Albert attempts to address a crowd of several thousand at Britain's 1925 Empire Exposition inside Wembley Stadium (no, pressure there). The address is a disaster and an embarrassment to King George (Michael Gambon). Still, the King can take some comfort in knowing Albert will never succeed him on the throne. That honor belongs to the first born, David - that is, until he decides to forsake his country for the woman he loves, divorcee Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).
As George falls ill, then dies, all eyes turn hopefully or perhaps desperately for inspiration to Albert and his dutiful, doting wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter). After Albert attempts with no avail to rid himself of his stutter through conventional methods, Elizabeth decides to secure the services of Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). At first, Lionel does not recognize Her Royal Majesty and turns the offer down. Lionel's unorthodox methods for treating the cause of Albert's stuttering create friction between the two men. Lionel insists on calling the future King 'Bertie' to his face and thereafter breaks almost every protocol of monarchical etiquette in order to challenge and defeat the emotional vices that have rendered Albert insecure. After Lionel tells the king that he should abandon smoking to soften his acoustic nerves, Albert informs Lionel that smoking has been soundly conferred on him as a means to manage his stutter by the court physicians.
"They're idiots," Lionel exclaims.
"They've all been knighted," Albert suggests.
"Makes it official then," concludes Lionel.
As Adolph Hitler amasses his armies in readiness for the invasion of Europe Albert prepares for what will eventually go down in the annals of history as his finest hour; the King's speech delivered with such sustained poise and grace that it rallies his nation to war.
Under the auspices of a production house like Merchant/Ivory The King's Speech would have been a lavishly appointed Edwardian spectacle with a visual sumptuousness to rival its subject matter. Tom Hooper does not have this luxury, however. In fact, the film was almost not made at all because no one holding the purse strings could envision it as a hit. Indeed, the whole movie is about two men who do nothing except talk to each other. As such, The King's Speech was regarded as something less of a throwback and much more of a return to that lost art of the 'drawing room' talkie; movies made in Britain some sixty years before by the Archers at Pinewood Studios. There's very little outside of the relationship between Albert and Lionel worth mentioning and yet it proves to be everything!
For there is nothing to touch the electric sparks generated between Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush; two formidable talents undeniably within their element. To observe either actor in the thick of Albert’s expert tutelage is to be magically teleported back into an era when actors – rather than the camera – did most of the performing. Rush and Firth know their way around a scene; moreover they understand the mechanics as well as the emotional content and are able to convey superbly the fundamentals of the story. They could have played their scenes together against a blank backdrop and still have retained such poignancy. Thankfully, we are treated to Eve Stewart’s clever production design; a moody conclave of darkly lit interiors and desaturated exteriors filtered through a clingy fog. Danny Cohen's cinematography captures the looming dinginess of London teetering on the brink of war. Jenny Beavan's Costume Design resurrects the English classicist system with superb attention to every last detail.
Still, it’s the effortless repartee between Rush and Firth that sustains the movie; skillful and seemingly effortless, enriching every frame. Helena Bonham-Carter is a very capable Queen Elizabeth. Derek Jacobi provides a very solid cameo as the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the final analysis, The King's Speech is most deserving of its Best Picture Academy Award. Now those who missed it in theaters can finally deduce for themselves the reason why.
Alliance Home Video's Blu-ray is visually stunning, which is saying much for a film whose cinematography is just average. The transfer is a feast for the eye. The film's color scheme adopts a blue-gray patina but the Blu-ray's handling of these subtly variances is breathtaking. Fine detail is evident in every scene. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are somewhat subdued, but again, this is in keeping with the film's original visual presentation. The audio is DTS 5.1 and although hardly as aggressive as your run of the mill action flick, is nevertheless hearty and robust. Dialogue is very natural sounding. Alexandre Desplat's score is given its moment to shine.
Extras are rather limited. We get a featurette on the inspirational back story and a Q&A session with director and cast as well as speeches from the real King George (the name Albert took after becoming king). There's also an informative audio commentary from Hooper. The King's Speech comes highly recommended. It is 'old fashion' in the very best tradition and it really reminded me of the reasons I used to love going to the movies so often as a child; chiefly for the satisfaction of seeing brilliant actors performing great theater with all the God-given accoutrements at their disposal. Bravo to all and hearty kudos to each. The King’s Speech is a winner! The nation awaits – now, none of us have to!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)