In April of 1924, King George VI opened the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. The Duke of York, played beautifully by the affable Colin Firth, stammered in his delivery of the games’ opening speech.
As a child, the Duke was raised mostly by nannies, had stomach problems and was forced against his left-handedness to write with his right. So shadowed by his father’s authoritarian oratory, “Bertie,” as his family calls him, could not complete a sentence without a stammer.
“It cured Demosthenes,” says his physician while instructing the Duke to attempt speaking with a mouthful of marbles. Retorts Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Helena Bonham Carter), Duchess of York, “That was in ancient Greece. Has it worked since?” As you can imagine, the session ends abruptly. Thus, at the recommendation of the President of the Society for Speech Therapists*, through the fog she travels by car to commission the aid of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). He has no idea he’s in the presence of Her Royal Highness.
Logue accepts the job on the condition that they work within the privacy of his office. His method, much to the Duke’s dismay, attempts to get to the emotional root of the speech impediment. Logue taps into Bertie’s inner orator by eliminating outside obstacles, using various physical and vocal techniques (including sounding off expletives to avoid locking up, a technique which yields some of the more entertaining interjections) and playing music through headphones while the Duke recites lines from Hamlet.
“This family’s been reduced to those lowest, basest of all creatures. We’ve become actors,” says King George V (Michael Gambon) of the manner in which radio has transformed the role and presence of royalty and heads of state. The possibility of another war is looming and, following George V’s death, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) abdicates the throne in 1936 out of controversy, leaving his stuttering brother to take up the throne and, consequently, the responsibility for addressing subjects of the British Empire (later the Commonwealth).
Including the principals, there’s a sizable cast of well-known British actors commanding the stage on which this story is set. Derek Jacobi plays Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury, an ambitious man who ascended to his previous title, Archbishop of York, in the 18 years since his ordination. Timothy Spall seems to have quite a bit of fun playing Winston Churchill, taking the “Bulldog” nickname to heart. British television actress Eve Best bears a startling resemblance to Wallis Simpson, the twice-divorced American for whom Edward left his station to marry.
Since his establishment as a British institution by way of the role of Mr. Darcy in the BBC miniseries adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Firth has shown considerable growth as an actor. Last year’s A Single Man, its narrative muddled by director Tom Ford’s over-indulgence, demonstrated the range of emotion Mr. Firth could carefully contain in an understated performance. Here, he is tasked with the complication of grabbing an audience by playing an ineffectual figure, wracked with stagefright. Much of this is achieved by bouncing off Geoffrey Rush who, as Logue, effortlessly shifts between failed stage actor and over-confident, yet endearing, speech therapist.
One of the most amusing scenes, demonstrating Mr. Rush’s knack for subtlety, involves Lionel’s wife, Myrtle Logue’s early return home when the Duke and Duchess of York are still present. Logue locks himself in another room with Bertie and insists, “I need to wait for the right moment.” Head shaking slightly, his voice lowers to a whisper. Mr. Rush doesn’t over-emote. He plays the scene nervously quiet. Sensing the irony, the Duke says, “Logue, you’re being a coward.” With a tone that any married man knows all too well, Logue admits, “You’re damned right.” Some moments later, Myrtle asks if they will stay for dinner. When the Duchess explains they have a previous engagement, she’s amusingly referring to the Duke’s coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey.
Danny Cohen’s cinematography makes considerable use of available light. Scenes in large, expansive royal quarters possess the same soft, diffuse light that complemented cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek’s shots in Milos Forman’s Amadeus. Formal compositions, using depth perspective to heighten the tension and anxiety felt by our protagonist, are used to superb result. Listening to the King’s 1939 radio address declaring a state of war with Germany after the Nazi invasion of Poland, one panning shot ends on the stark, blue-eyed face of a young soldier. The shot’s color, contrast and grain give it a striking, photojournalistic quality.
Alexandre Desplat’s use of strings reflects the state of King George’s self-confidence, at times trembling and withering and then, finding his voice, legato strings accompanied by soft piano melodies—assured yet with a stately reserve. Mr. Desplat has been around some time, scoring French television and film since 1985, but his knack for hanging American audiences on the edges of our seats by a single, oscillating note, began with Jonathan Glazer’s 2004 film, Birth. The score and superlative sound mix, meshing dialogue and music in a manner far from resembling razor blades being thrown at your ears, will go underappreciated this awards season due to the “bigger is better” rule that tends to favor that which is beaten to death, preferably loudly—127 Hours and TRON: Legacy immediately come to mind.
Few films this year have had as well-rounded a mix of acting, direction, sound and picture, but The King’s Speech is in every respect a beautiful film, beautifully played by its principal and supporting cast, and, with seven nominations by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in its favor, it may very well command the lion’s share of awards at the Globes and Oscars® in 2011.
* This is factually incorrect, as the Society was not founded until 1935. Logue was a co-founder.
The King’s Speech • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Running Time: 118 minutes • MPAA Rating:R for some language. • Distributed by Paramount Pictures
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