First published on Snipe //
Starring: Colin Firth, Helena Bonham-Carter, Geoffrey Rush
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Welcome to the throwback film of the century. You already know the story thanks to the BAFTA-soaked hype parade (and the ubiquitous trailers), and you’re vaguely familiar with the history, World War II and all that (though you won’t be too much the wiser by the end of this movie). On top of this, before even a single frame is set on the screen, prepare to be shunted into a retrogressive state of thinking: that the ruling of a pillaged Empire is something to take great patriotic pride in.
We’re thrown in right before our boy Albert/King George VI is about to give one of his silence-filled speeches, just after the film’s opened with a little heads up on where we are, 1925 England to be exact, the closing speech of the Empire Exhibition. Cue all the trendy framing a voguish director can muster of our reluctant King (later assuming the name George VI when taking the throne) with requisite plain spaces of nothing with our principal character poised at the edge of it, or maybe just the corner of his hat and an eye. Very modern and unimaginative but efficient, much like the film itself.
So Prince Albert (Colin Firth) has a stutter. Not good for a man who regularly has to stand in front of thousands and speak, nor accommodating in a time when the wireless has expanded the reach of said person’ stammer, thus multiplying his failings Commonwealth-wide. So his dutiful wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter), gets him help. They’ve been through the struggle of correcting his speech with incapable doctors and therapists, until Elizabeth decides to seek out the man who will change all that. The result is a misfiring, very British stiff upper lip comedy of manners at the outset when we first meet loveable rogue Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). She calls for him, standing in his reception. He answers her from the shitter. It’s all very amusing.
Then there’s a montage of elocution lessons where he makes progress in the confines of Logue’s office but still can’t hack the pressure when it comes to it. Oh and he’s got a mean Daddy who doesn’t help. The story runs smoothly most of the time, kind of chugging along like a well-oiled BBC costume drama, the sort director Tom Hooper has been known for (along with some Byker Grove and EastEnders).
That’s not to say that some of the cinematography isn’t decent. But Hooper’s film, at its core, seems strangely confused over quite a simple story, purposefully evading any complexities to strike its broad brush at the canvas of World politics, finding it acceptable enough to merely shove in a few cameo appearances from Churchill, Baldwin and Chamberlain, occasionally name dropping Hitler and Stalin. David Seidler’s script tries its hardest to humanise the King, to make him appealing to the common man with his common problems (a victim of child abuse, how can that miss?) but the tear-jerkers are ticked off one-by-one in supposedly heart rending conversations with Lionel like a film version of a Wikipedia page.
Rather hypocritically it makes the point that the King will never know anything of the ‘common man’, yet Seidler goes out of his way to pave that one-way street, as we the audience/the people are given the dubious honour of trying to understand what it’s like to be royalty (Oh so very trying) when the same effort isn’t done from their end. The ruddy swines. It’s the film equivalent of a book that reads “blah blah blah blah b-b-b-b-b-blah” and a sadly condescending experience at that, where magical Disney music plays when a ‘normal’ person has an encounter with the King and Queen. It’s artificial and generally a bit doughy: a forced quaint kind of humour and over-exerted in its attempt at quirkiness.
Churchill (Timothy Spall) especially is played up with unnecessary fervour, too knowing of his potentially important role as if to say: “Yeah, I’ve got a winner here and I’m gonna milk the bastard for all its worth”, taking the part by the throat and throttling it. The same goes for the majority of the performances; Bonham-Carter acts too hard, Firth is almost irritatingly histrionic. Something should be said for Rush though, who carries off his part with dignity and is the only member of the ensemble who makes the thing watchable.
What’s most confusing about The King’s Speech is that it both argues for the importance of a King at a time of crisis, then at the same time passes him off in the main as a complete non-entity and just a speech giver. So which is it?
By the end, and by the time King G VI has to step to the mic, it’s a ruddy relief that he spits out the words, not so much because we’re with him on his dastardly journey, but that the film is nearly over. Amidst this, (of all things!) is the perpetuation of the myth that the people need the Monarch with the silver screen affair ending like a flood of hot turds run into the eyeballs. Hyperbole perhaps. But maybe that’s why it even earned the Queen’s approval. I’ll calm down now.
Alternatively: watch The Madness of King George.
// Also published on: Spike Magazine