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by Eric Kohn
November 22, 2010 3:18 AM
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REVIEW | Truth in Advertising: Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech"

A scene from Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech."

"The King's Speech" fuses several genres into an unlikely blend. It's a lavish period piece about British rule in the years leading up to World War II, a buddy movie about two men of different social classes learning to get along, and a crowdpleasing tale of athletic triumph, complete with the requisite training montage. Director Tom Hooper focuses on the travails of Bertie (Colin Firth), the son of King George V (Michael Gambon), future king of England, and notorious stutterer. Hooper turns history into formula: Can poor Bertie gather the nerves to address his people when duty calls? Under the fervent guidance of speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), will Bertie overcome his verbal obstacles for the sake of the throne? Take a wild guess on both counts.

Despite its familiar ingredients, however, "The King's Speech" maintains a muted tone, normalizing a rather peculiar footnote to the bygone days of the British government. Firth and Rush work marvelously together, generating an amusing "Odd Couple" chemistry that's unabashedly theatrical, but the movie holds little appeal beyond the scenes they share. Bertie and Lionel could have their own TV show; by contrast, Bertie and his supportive wife (Helena Bonham Carter) are a cold, mechanical couple, much like the rest of the royal family. The other twists of the plot, which involve Bertie's carefree brother Edward (Guy Pearce) briefly assuming the throne before abandoning ship to marry an American woman, and Bertie's growing awareness of Hitler's threat to Europe, take on secondary roles. Nothing matters more than Bertie's quest to finish a sentence.

So he works hard at it. Watching Lionel goad Bertie into singing his thoughts and finding his verbal rhythm by ecstatically screaming vulgarities (the sole reason for this tame drama's R rating) provides a series of cheap thrills. Hooper's feel-good storytelling recalls Jeffrey Blitz's "Rocket Science," which revolved around a stutterer engaged in high school debate competitions, but the sunny vibes seem out of place in the context of British royalty.

Hooper's efforts are further hampered by a continual literal-mindedness. The repeated use of fish-eye lenses to capture an atmosphere of psychological entrapment grow tiresome after a few scenes. We're never given much of a sense for his evolution as a ruler, so when he discusses his responsibilities, the aspirations ring hollow. "The nation believes that, when I speak, I speak to them," he says. Since he's never shown making crucial decisions as the king, Bertie comes across as just a mouthpiece -- albeit a broken one.

The real star of the show is the radio, as demonstrated by the reverential opening shots of a microphone from various angles. Technology becomes the democratizing force that brings the leaders down from their pedestals to face the country. "We must invade their homes and ingratiate ourselves to them," gripes Bertie. When he finally does that without faltering, "The King's Speech" briefly obtains emotional weight. Hooper shows the faces of unidentified citizens from across the country, all deeply absorbed by their king's proclamation of war. The ramifications of his words register in their joint concentration, but the compelling montage arrives too late in the game. When the emphasis shifts from the king to his subjects, it turns out that the last two hours mainly serve as a prolonged introduction to the final five minutes.

criticWIRE grade: B

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9 Comments

  • thom kaplan | February 28, 2011 2:32 AMReply

    Having finally watched this film, I agree 100% with the reviewer. Weal plot. weak acting. The radio partially redeems the movie

  • jeff | February 24, 2011 9:08 AMReply

    If you think the reviewer missed the point of the film, imagine how much more virulent his criticism would have been if he actually hadn't. Perhaps a better argument would ignore the weak character relationships and point out the ethical bankruptcy of yet another film helping us to understand the heroism of the British monarchy. This is worse than any failure to flesh out character relationships, than conflating the duke's battle with his speech disorder with the war struggle against Nazi Germany. It's just embarrassing to think this movie was made in 2010.

  • PCG | January 10, 2011 7:12 AMReply

    A truly pathetic piece of reviewing wherein the writer seems to not only have entirely missed the point of the film but also seems hell-bent on displaying his incompetence and ignorance in the process.

    So many of the "points" of this critic simply show a fundamental misunderstanding of the British political and social systems in the years before WW2. You cannot critique a world you do not understand.

    Incidentally having reviewed this and other negative reviews it is striking that they all use the same tired arguments (usually about lens angles) and descriptions. I sense that lazy reviewers are doing a little bit of copying.

  • Rodney | January 1, 2011 10:26 AMReply

    What a load of nonsense. This movie was enthralling. It wasn't a world war II movie, it was about his speech impediment set to the backdrop of royal duty and War.

    Obviously the name of the movie reveals that he will be King and that he will make a speech, if you only want movies with a twist at the end, stick to M. Night Shyamalan.

  • Rob Lapides | November 24, 2010 5:58 AMReply

    "Bertie comes across as just a mouthpiece—albeit a broken one" Intentional.

  • Blanche | November 24, 2010 4:21 AMReply

    "The real star of the show is the radio, as demonstrated by the reverential opening shots of a microphone from various angles." This is the hidden value of this movie. It shows the importance access rather than content in political dynamics.

  • walter | November 24, 2010 2:19 AMReply

    The review depicts the connection between historical and human reaction to those events. this gave a new perspective on what the director was trying to convey.

  • I liked the movie | November 24, 2010 2:06 AMReply

    "Take a wild guess on both counts"? Both counts are the same question and since it's a historical story, we know that he becomes King. And what do you mean "British rule in the years leading up to WW2"? It's Britain, so it's pretty much always under British rule. And is that a complaint that the climax was served by the story that preceded it? I guess no movie, novel, play, folk tale, or dirty joke has ever done that before. Too much snark and narrow-mindedness in this review (he says snarkily).

  • oren | November 23, 2010 12:47 AMReply

    Historical based films have the danger of not conforming to the realities they portrait. This review brings clearly the elements that have been addd to history to make the story line flow