I had certain expectations going into "The King's Speech," which dramatizes the tumultuous events around the ascension of King George VI to the throne in 1936. I expected the usual pomp and pageantry, a round a solid performances by the impressive cast, lots of lengthy speechmaking, and some nods and winks to the historical record. I got all of these in abundance, but a couple of surprises too. I don't know the last time I saw a British prestige picture that was such a crowd-pleaser. It's often funny, builds to a big, tense, climax, and features the best underdog of the year - King George VI, better known as Bertie to his closest relations.
Colin Firth is the clear frontrunner for every major acting award this year because he injects such humanity into a major historical figure, and the audience can't help but feel for his plight. At the beginning of the film he's second in line to the throne after his older brother David (Guy Pearce), soon to be Edward VIII. However, the film portrays David as an irresponsible, emotionally unstable playboy under the thrall of his American lover, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). With World War II looming on the horizon, Bertie finds himself under increasing pressure to lead. Unfortunately, public speaking has become a necessity in the radio age and Bertie is hampered by a debilitating stammer. With the support and encouragement of his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), he seeks out doctors and therapists who might cure him, and finally lands on the doorstep of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a transplanted Australian with unconventional methods.
There are two big performances in "The King's Speech." One is Colin Firth's and the other is Geoffrey Rush's, and the two working in concert is sublime. One of Lionel Logue's conditions for commencing treatment is that he and Bertie conduct themselves as equals, which leads first to a contentious therapist-patient relationship, and then to a genuine friendship. Watching them interact is fascinating, and the film is great at delivering the stage-play intimacy of two actors going at each other, but in settings that only cinema could afford them. Firth gets the more impressive part to play, with all the shouting and stammering and emotional fireworks, but Rush keeps finding ways to steal the spotlight and inject humor into the the proceedings, and it's so much fun to watch. Helena Bonham Carter also gets in a few good scenes, turning a small role into an invaluable one. Whenever any two of the three are on the screen together, the film is exceptional.
Whenever they're not, things tend to slow down. With so much of the narrative dependent on the historical context, at times it does feel like the filmmakers are determined to give us a crash course in pre-WWII British history. From some of the complaints I've read about the amount of dramatic license that was taken with Churchill and Edward VIII and even the famous stammer, apparently it's not a very accurate one either. As a non-Brit with very little knowledge of the time period, even I could see some of the seams. However, it was never so distracting as to take away any enjoyment from the stronger parts of the script - the interpersonal relationships, the dialogue from the treatment scenes, and the characterization of the two chief characters. As with "The Social Network," 2010's other big biographical film, I say hang the accuracy, and long live dramatic license.
Tom Hooper's direction is flashy when it needs to be, but is usually so understated that you don't notice the way the camera is moving and how modern and invigorating the style is. It reminded me of another recent period piece, Michael Mann's "Public Enemies," except with a great deal more restraint. It's all tight moving shots and slightly warped lenses for the buildup to the claustrophobic speech scenes, and then when the camera needs to stop and pull back for the big, epic moments, it does. Also, London has never looked so good on film, from the foggy streets to the interiors of Westminster Abbey to the greenery of the surrounding countryside. You can practically feel the cold and the damp seeping through the screen.
"The King's Speech" is very well made, but it's real strength is that it has such an exciting, inspiring story at its core. You root for Bertie to succeed against everything weighing down on him, to overcome a personal fear that everyone can relate to. His victory may not be the kind that wins medals or trophies, but it's no less emotional or satisfying to watch. The last ten minutes of the film are tenser and more thrilling than any sports match or race or game I've ever seen on film.
Secretariat, eat your heart out.