What is the appeal of a period piece? Is it the glimpse of the past through one person’s interpretation? Is it the chance to escape to another time and place? Is it both? Regardless of the answer, if there’s one man to do the job well in composing, directing, and producing a fantastic period piece, that man is Tom Hooper. Director of my favorite programs that have ever aired on HBO, he flawlessly created a vision for both Elizabeth I with Helen Mirren and John Adams with Paul Giamatti. Both of these mini-series succeeded in telling the story of specific time and person without giving way to too much dramatic liberty. And not only were they relatively accurate, they were also bedazzling to the eye. Every piece of lace or every wig was perfect. The amount of detail that was put into those productions was flawless. Lead by powerhouse casting, Elizabeth I and John Adams are two of the greatest programs to appear on pay-cable television in decades.
Tom Hooper is back again with The King’s Speech an appropriately real fable of a man who has a stutter and finds his voice both through the courage and support of his wife and a speech therapist. That man just happens to be King George VI, played by Collin Firth, or Bertie, as his friends like to call him. It’s this Pygmalion-esque dynamic between Lionel Logue that drives the film, but it is equally supported in plot development and character development with the relationship between George and his wife, the Queen Mum.
A longtime sufferer of a stutter, George worries about his place in the royal family if he ever had to make a speech. His father, George V (Michael Gambon), is harsh and cruel towards his son for his stutter. After he dies, though, it is Edward VIII who takes the son. Devilishly played by Guy Pearce, this is the kind of man you would not want as King. Having an affair with an American woman and trying to bypass church authority and marry her…it sounds as if one would have Hugh Heffner become President of the United States.
When Edward steps down as king, George’s worst fear comes full circle and he is forced to take the place. Being King means that he will have to make speeches. And thus, suffer greatly through them. Having already hired Lionel for the job, the two work even harder to prep him for his future speeches. And by the end of the film, you’re beaming brightly in support of Firth and his king.
Colin Firth is just a great actor in general, but he’s blown me away with his two last films, A Single Man and this, The King’s Speech. He gives an eloquently nuanced performance, struggling with every syllable in a completely believable way. Never does it sound fake or overdone. But, as you watch him suffer, your heart breaks a little and you have to suffer with him. To experience that kind of fear of people and not being able to articulate what you want to say at all is terrifying. He’s real and emotional every moment he is on screen.
Geoffrey Rush is a veteran of the screen and stage, and it is no surprise that he handles his role with gusto and perfection. Although I was expecting him to be more like Professor Henry Higgins, by which I mean, a complete bastard, he is actually kind and thoughtful, if a bit eccentric. Though he’s not a trained speech therapist, his techniques make for a great montage sequence, filled with humor and, most of all, pathos.
Helena Bonham Carter is fantastic as the Queen Mum, Elizabeth. She’s prim, and simply perfect. She allows herself to be unusually restrained, which is quite unlike her. She usually plays her roles to the hilt in an over the top, almost bombastic fashion, like in Sweeney Todd and Harry Potter. But placing her in a much more modest role was a good move.
Honestly, the relationship between George VI and Lionel Logue was much nicer and calmer than I was expecting. There is much less repartee between the two, and while George isn’t instantly happy with Lionel, it’s not as if Lionel subjects his patient to anything terribly arduous. I was expecting a meaner, crueler depiction, something more like My Fair Lady and the notorious kind of Rex Harrison attitude towards the job. But the fact that the relationship between the two was much more amicable, almost more cathartic and therapeutic, is a good thing for the audience. It’s more calming and more enjoyable to watch. Having that aspect of schadenfreude would be overboard, as we already sympathize George for his stutter. Making the doctor wicked and despicable would change the movie’s tone entirely.
The screenplay is strong, as it illustrates specific, moments to elicit emotion and humor. One scene in particular, where Lionel asks George to curse, is hilarious and very well played out. This scene is the sole reason as to its R-rating. Even though he lets loose a plethora of profanities, hit’s not so bad as to warrant an R-rating. The cinematography is also fantastic, as there are specific things on the screen that remain in focus. Colin Firth called the lenses that Tom Hooper uses “brutal”. Yes, we can see every pore on each actor’s face, but that’s not a problem, as the restrained movement and use of interesting angles shows a bleak side of England.
I think Tom Hooper has a thing for choosing projects with strong females. You have Elizabeth I, with the titular queen reigning powerfully, you have John Adams with Abigail (Laura Linney) by the side of her husband John at every moment she can, and you have this film, The King’s Speech, with Elizabeth at her husband’s side. This not only shows great support for the main characters, but shows a kind of hope or the audience in general. And is that not what the film is about? Hope, the hope we can have to get through the most terrifying moments of our lives? The title both refers to the stutter ridden articulation of George’s speech as well as the final moments in the film, where he walks through after completing successfully his first speech to the English people. He’s now a king, completely deserving of every word.