The notion of an ‘Oscar-worthy’ film is a mixed blessing. The ‘buzz’ is something that critics and industry peers can muster up about your film on the festival circuit months before any of us commoners can lay eyes upon them. Unfortunately, by this time the initial fire of your film can be snubbed out by the time of the DVD release (see Slumdog Millionaire). Some films attempt to create themselves the ‘buzz’ by cynically casting Academy darlings, a plot from legitimate literature and a director to match, effectively buying a nomination. Somehow The King’s Speech transcends these factors, because it just isn’t what it seems at all.
At first, it may seem like a stuffy period drama. The slightly deceptive UK ad-campaign for the film seems to bill it as some sort of farcical period comedy. Crucially, the film is neither of these, and that is what makes it so enjoyable. The film is undoubtedly a crowd-pleaser, but what it does so well is balance the comedy (at times, hysterical) with poignant character interplay. This mainly takes place between Prince George (Colin Firth), the tongue-tied Royal, and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) the Australian actor turned speech therapist. Despite the attention Firth is receiving, thoroughly deserved as it is, it couldn’t work without Rush’s performance. They are subtly balanced, the chemistry obvious yet natural, a true bromance of regal proportions. Logue’s methods are controversial (he insists on addressing the Prince as ‘Bertie’, his affectionate family nick-name), and the fact of his being Australian – a colonial – creates initial tension in the relationship. But once titles and social standing are put aside, it is Bertie’s self-discovery that comes centre stage, creating some of the film’s most moving scenes that evoke genuine empathy to problems which in the wrong hands could be disregarded as somewhat superficial.
Originally a play (written by Australian David Seidler, himself a life-long sufferer of speech impediments), director Tom Hooper manages to create a stage for the actors to breathe but not stifle the visuals, there is a theatrical simplicity to the sets yet nothing ever feels staged. The cinematography is beautiful, and the film is plainly period yet nicely detailed. Helena Bonham Carter as the future Queen Mother delivers a humorous and stoic performance. Guy Pearce and Michael Gambon are on form as the scandalous and generally unlikeable bullying brother Edward VIII and the harsh and distant father George V, respectively. The only grease mark on the film’s otherwise spotless dinner jacket is Timothy Spall’s bizarre and distinctly unsubtle performance as Winston Churchill, thankfully a momentary annoyance.
What the film could be seen as is an exploration of celebrity. Running alongside beginnings of the BBC, Bertie is essentially being media trained. His father notes to him that kings can no longer sit on horseback and look regal; they must now speak to their people. The film does iron over some of the historical facts – for example Bertie and the Queen Mother’s eagerness for the appeasement of Hitler, and the film is perhaps too Royalist for some. However, the humanity of the story shines through. Firth’s performance is truly Oscar-worthy, subtle, nuanced, and keeping on the right side of tasteful. It is almost impossible not to like for him, and you’ll never be more surprised by how touched you can be by a character shouting expletives at the top of his well-to-do voice.
The King’s Speech, thankfully, does deserve the Oscar hype, moving and funny in equal measure. Eventually, world events catch up with Bertie’s personal story, but when zero hour arrives, when the event of the title comes into play, you’ll be rooted to your seat and rooting for him to the last.