Every year, there’s always one film that screens at a fall festival and, overnight, becomes a major awards contender. In 2008, it was “Slumdog Millionaire,” in 2009 it was “Up in the Air.” This year, the rapturous reaction that “The King’s Speech” received at Telluride, and its Audience Award win at Toronto, saw the period drama take its place as a lock among the ten Best Picture nominees, and perhaps the only film to emerge from the field as of yet that could challenge the presumptive front-runner “The Social Network.” Having missed it at Toronto, we had one question going into the film’s premiere at the London Film Festival on Thursday night: was the film that rarity, a classy period piece that connects with audiences and critics alike, or the kind of easy, older-skewing drama that connects with Academy voters because it’s so IMPORTANT (see “The Reader“).
Well, as it happens, there’s a little from column A, and a little from column B; it’s a well acted, enjoyable, beautifully crafted film that happens to have some fairly major problems. But we’ll come to those in a bit. The film opens in 1925, as Albert Frederick Arthur George (Colin Firth), the second son of King George V (Michael Gambon), attempts to give a speech at Wembley Stadium. Emphasis on ‘attempts’: Bertie, as his family know him, has suffered from a debilitating stammer since childhood, and the oratory is a disaster.
Numerous remedies are tried, none of which prove successful in any way, and Bertie, and his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter), become resigned to the problem. But as the 30s roll around, and with Hitler a growing threat, and Bertie’s elder brother David (Guy Pearce) showing more interest in his twice-divorced American mistress (Eve Best) than his potential kingly duties, the issue becomes more pressing, and Elizabeth seeks out an eccentric Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who may have a solution.
It all sounds rather comfortable, like the kind of politely-acted Masterpiece Theater that haunts public television schedules in both the US and the UK. But it’s to director Tom Hooper‘s credit that the film mostly transcends these comparisons. For a film originally written (by “Tucker: The Man And His Dream” writer David Seidler) as a stage play, and about the very act of speaking, it could have easily come across as talky, but Hooper’s direction, which frequently frames the action in extreme close up on the participants faces, feels entirely cinematic.
It’s aided by three central performances that are entirely worthy of the early praise. Rush, as Logue, is occasionally a little broad, but it’s sort of required to keep the film from becoming too dry, and for the most part it’s a subtle and amusing performance. Firth is even better: we’ve been guilty of dismissing him in the past, after “Pride and Prejudice” saw him typecast as a series of joyless prigs, but between this and last year’s “A Single Man,” we’ve entirely revised our view. He’s transformed here, carrying across the character’s speech defect without it ever becoming mannered or actorly, and still conveying the human being, and potentially great leader, within. The chemistry between the two leads, which the film essentially lives or dies on, is terrific as well.
Special mention should be given to Helena Bonham-Carter as well, who hasn’t quite gained the same plaudits as her co-stars. It’s a long time since we’ve really enjoyed the actress in anything: like husband and regular collaborator Tim Burton, she’s become somewhat ossified in recent years, endlessly reprising the kind of screeching, wild-haired eccentric that she can play with her eyes closed. She’s something of a revelation here, easily the best she’s been since “Fight Club“: warm and funny, but never letting Logue, or the audience, forget her position, and she should certainly be in the running for a nomination at the end of the year.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the rest of the supporting cast, and it nearly cripples the film. As dying King George V, Gambon gets essentially two scenes: the second, as a rather lost and senile king, is touching, but in the first Gambon has to shoulder most of the film’s backstory and stakes in a single unwieldy monologue, and even the veteran star can’t pull it off. Timothy Spall is miscast as the entirely redundantly-placed Winston Churchill, never given the opportunity to try anything other than caricature, while Guy Pearce brings unexpected pathos to the flighty Edward VIII, but seems to visibly struggle with the accent, and never truly convinces. Accents also prove a roadblock to Jennifer Ehle, a rather odd choice for Logue’s wife, who’s also saddled with a severely underwritten role, and some truly terrible old-age make-up, and Derek Jacobi is one-dimensionally villainous as the Archbishop of Canterbury.
But the biggest problem here is really Seidler’s script. The writer can’t decide whether he’s telling a personal, low-key story, or one on which the fate of the free world rests. It may not help that this writer is something of a die-hard republican, in the lower-case, let’s-put-their-heads-on-a-guillotine way that those of us who have to still suffer an unelected head of state often are, but we can at least appreciate that if the film’s thesis was that Britain needed a propaganda figurehead in the king, than that could raise the film’s stakes. But Seidler never commits to the idea, and it feels half-hearted, leaving much of the second half adrift.
Furthermore, the second half of the film also sees the writing slip into cliché. You’ll have already seen the “Because I have a voice!”/”Yes you do” exchange in the film’s trailer, and it works no better in the finished film, plus it’s been joined by a number of other somewhat cringeworthy, Oscar-baiting moments. Hooper and his cast work best when they’re being low-key, and the histrionics, when they come, ring false.
There’s still plenty to like: the below-the-line talent at all levels is terrific, particularly the crisp lensing from Danny Cohen (“This Is England“) and the rousing score from the ever-reliable Alexandre Desplat. And there’s certainly an audience for this kind of (mostly) well-executed middlebrow crowd-pleasing fare: we just wish that Hooper hadn’t necessarily pandered to them in the way that the film sometimes does. [B-]