The motherfrakking Oscar-winning King’s Speech
Yeah, yeah, so it won. But allow me to retort…
The King’s Speech
(Tom Hooper, UK, 2010)
For all its artful swearing and arty framing, this is a fundamentally safe film – a heritage remake of Good Will Hunting
Every year or two, it comes along – the crowd-pleasing Britpic that captures the public’s imagination and rides the crest of goodwill all the way to the Oscars. The King’s Speech has had sell-out audiences, and ovations, and astonishing word-of-mouth…amongst the kind of people who seldom visit a cinema. The question is: what does it offer beyond the safety of a well-tooled, old-fashioned ‘Sunday night’ entertainment?
It’s certainly an amazing story, in which history offers its own kind of neat structure. The future King George VI isn’t the all-conquering hero of age-old divine right, but an accidental monarch fumbling to justify his promotion to himself after a lifetime of being kept in the shadows. In itself, it offers a romanticised of the humanity behind the throne, as well as a cute political allegory about differing methods of leadership. Between George V’s old-school tyrant and Edward VII’s effete, scandalous dilettante, Bertie is the third option: decent, sensitive and repressed. The king as underdog.
And the unifiying theme of speech provides a striking symbol of the divide between private passion and public reticence, a study of an era where the done thing was to bottle things in. The best parts of the film are set in the no man’s land of speech therapist Lionel Logue’s working quarters, which are cleverly conceived as a void (where even the wallpaper has been stripped away) to facilitate a cancelling out of class so that two very different men can meet as equals. Some deftly written character comedy turns the culture clash between repressed posho and informal Aussie into an unlikely period bromance.
But… this is still the safe option, a gentle caress where a knife needs to be stuck. As a republican, I can’t help but see a lost opportunity for a brutal satire on the concept of regality, a dark Pygmalion about a knock-kneed, stammering reject being transformed into everybody’s idea of the English gentleman. But here, the psychological torture of Bertie’s upbringing is treated as backstory for the narrative arc and not symbolic of something rotten in the state. Worse, because this is wartime movie, there’s a dispiriting naïve undertow of parochial flag-waving, in which George’s ascension to speechhood reflects England’s transformation into the bulwark of pride and individuality against Hitler’s Germany. The more ambivalent truth about the Royal Family’s feelings for Nazism are simply brushed over.
So the film works best – at all – as a character study, and Firth gives a decent, honest performance of a man uncomfortable in his own skin who learns to loosen up. Which, of course, is pretty much every character Firth has ever played, but he’s certainly refined it here into an extraordinarily subtle performance where multitudes are ‘spoken’ with a glance or a grimace. Admittedly, Tom Hooper doesn’t do the predictability any favours with a digrammatical compositional sense, which starts with Firth cowering in the corner of the frame and ends with him bang-on centre, as he gradually gets back on target. (Aside from some ostentatious tracking shots, it’s not really clear why this is a movie and not a TV drama – or, even more aptly, a radio play.) Thank God for magnetic Geoffrey Rush, not for the first time enlivening a potentially dull movie with that rascally twinkle in his eye and an unerring sense of finding broad laughs amidst what could have been stifling pomposity.