Since its screenings at Telluride and Toronto this year, Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech” has been gaining Oscar buzz both for the director and its star, Colin Firth. Last year, the actor received a best actor nomination for his role in “A Single Man,” which also screened at Toronto, and momentum is building for a repeat when the noms are unveiled in January. Hooper may very well be heading to the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles along with Firth for their film, based on the true story of Great Britain’s WWII-era monarch, King George VI – father of the country’s current sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II.
At a recent New York screening of the film at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Hooper said during an onstage interview with the organization’s Scott Foundas that “the English are conflicted by monarchy. It’s revered, loved, and entertaining, but also out of step with modernity.” George’s effort to overcome a long personal challenge fits well with a beleaguered nation facing a massive threat from Germany in its own hope to surmount a daunting threat.
Following the death of his father, George V (played by Michael Gambon) and the unbelievable abdication of his elder brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) in order to marry the American divorceé Wallis Simpson, Bertie (Firth) is thrust upon the throne. He has suffered a debilitating stammer all his life, making any public speaking a moment of personal horror – something made all the worse with the dawn of the media age. With Britain on the brink of war and seriously in need of a leader, his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), meets with an eccentric Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Though the unlikely duo have a rough start, their relationship endures and Lionel’s nontraditional methods begin to show signs of working.
“When he became King, people knew about his stammer and there was always this suspense about whether he’d be able to get through his speech,” Hooper noted. “There was this question about whether he’d be able to overcome this and it was a metaphor for England itself, if it could overcome its current situation.”
David Seidler, who wrote the film, also suffered from a profound childhood stutter, and George VI became a childhood hero and eventually the inspiration for the script. Hooper noted that Seidler had sent the screenplay to George VI’s widow, The Queen Mother – her title following his death – but she had said the pain from that period was too painful and requested that it remain on the shelf until after her death. Following her death, the story regained momentum and after production finally began, the filmmakers received an unexpected windfall of information from the period.
“Nine weeks before film [production] ended, Lionel Logue’s grandson found diaries depicting their relationship,” said Hooper. “We had this astonishing treasure-trove of material, and some of the most witty things written in those diaries were written by the King himself.”
Recalling the production further, Hooper said that despite some dissimilarities between George VI and the actor who would play him over a half-century after his death, Firth was the first person he wanted for the role. “The real king was rather small and sickly and Colin is about 6’2″ and strapping, but [Firth] has this incredibly nice core like George, so they share a similar soul.”
Asked whether the current monarch has seen the film, Hooper replied to some laughter, “People don’t know if the Queen has even seen ‘The Queen.’ The reality is, I will probably never know if she will see this film, but do I hope she will? I do hope so and I hope she would like it.”
Hooper also noted that decades on, George VI’s legacy has had a profound effect on his daughter and the monarchy through his example, hinting that the institution’s survival – which received a boost this week with the announcement of the pending marriage of George VI’s great-grandson, Prince William – is due to his example. “Elizabeth II has a profound sense of duty that she saw in her father. If she lived some lifestyle like a Russian oligarch, it would be repugnant.”
[“The King’s Speech” opens Friday, November 26 via The Weinstein Company in limited release, followed by additional cities in the coming weeks.]