Lowdown: The king of England has to come down to using the services of an unlikely Australian in order to deal with his speech impediment.
It’s rare to encounter a film with more fuss around it than The King’s Speech. Here is a film that, according to what the entertainment industry has been telling us, snatched the major Oscars from the hands of The Social Network. Here is a film starring one of my favorite actors, Colin Firth, who won his Academy Award for the role. And here is a film with a lot of controversy about it.
The King’s Speech is based on true events taking place during the first half of 20th century England. We follow a Firth playing the role of the second son of the post Great War's King of England. Firth performs the duties he was born into with great dedication, but he has a problem: he stutters and he can’t utter a word in public. This deficiency of his lets him endure some rather embarrassing times, but at least he has a wife that loves him and looks for solutions (Helena Bonham Carter, playing the person now known as the Queen Mother). When the pair seems to exhaust all conventional solutions, the wife learns of an unorthodox speech therapist from Australia (Geoffrey Rush) and decides, in desperation, to give him a try.
The rest of the film revolves around Firth’s issues with stooping so low as to use Rush to help him while, on the other hand, acknowledging Rush’s undeniable achievements. Then there is the historical background, with Firth’s ailing father and the question of who would take his place. That question is in the air because the king’s successor, Firth’s older brother (Guy Pearce), is busier running around an American divorcee rather than looking after a nation pushed to a corner by one Adolf Hitler.
The first thing I noticed about The King’s Speech is the direction work. It’s brilliant; it manages to convey seemingly boring scenes of one person talking to another in interesting ways, mainly through the use of unorthodox camera placement, camera movement and wide angle lenses. Then again, it is obvious that the direction work calls more than a bit of attention to itself and thus somewhat detracts the viewer from the film itself.
Then there is the acting. First a little anecdote: between Firth and Jennifer Ehle playing Rush’s wife, there is a bit of a 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series reunion here. Talking about Rush, his brilliant self is taken for granted by now, so much so you almost fail to notice it; but Firth manages to play the stuttering, tormented, would be king so very well. He deserves his accolades; in fact, both main actors do, because if you were to ask me The King’s Speech stands for nothing more than the tour de force of the acting it contains.
What are you saying, I hear you ask? The King’s Speech stands for nothing?
Yes, you heard me right. The King’s Speech does stand for nothing. Allow me to explain.
First and foremost, The King’s Speech is not as loyal to historical fact as it pretends to be. I will allow my esteemed colleague Christopher Hitchens to explain the problems with The King’s Speech's historical inaccuracies through his Slate articles here and here; the abridged version is that this film we have here politely neglects to mention the not too well hidden sympathy that members of the British royal family had for Nazi Germany. It is worth remembering they are, after all, a German family in many respects. Indeed, many of the characters that win our sympathies in The King’s Speech do not deserve it.
Which brings me to discuss the entire concept of the British monarchy. The King’s Speech is, in effect, the story of how the monarchy survived the relevancy test imposed on it by World War 2: the answer, according to the film, is in the King’s speech that galvanized the British empire against their Nazi foe (in much the same way as the recent royal wedding was pushed on us as means to maintain the relevancy of the same monarchy during our day and age). That argument, however, falls miserably in the face of historical facts; in many respects the royal family acted as a fifth wheel in the face of the German threat.
I will go on and speculate further. Let us assume the misrepresented history of The King’s Speech is actually true. Are we really expected to believe that it is a miserable speech that managed to keep England’s resistance firm? Would the pilots of The Battle of Britain flee in fear were it not for The King’s Speech? Of course they wouldn’t; the Brits would do very well, thank you, even without this monarchy of theirs. There is more to them than that crown. Surely the nation that produced my most favorite music albums (see here) did not do so just because of the queen.
If you ask me, the British monarchy has become an entity whose main purpose in life is to accumulate power for its own sake. It is there just so it could be there; in effect, it is a lot like religion. Or, for that matter, cancer.
Best scene: Firth’s character hears the recording of himself reading Shakespeare following his first visit to Rush’s “clinic”. He, and the Queen Mother next to him, cannot avoid astonishment as the virtually perfect read. I, on the other hand, was mesmerized by the brilliant direction work.
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray always appears a tad washed, probably appealing towards that periodic look but in effect sacrificing a lot of quality. The sound won’t knock you of your feet for aggressiveness but is very effective for the subject matter at hand. The classical music soundtrack is sublime.
Overall: If it wasn’t for the controversy and the acting I would have said The King’s Speech is boring. Still, it is an acting extravaganza, so I’m giving it 3 out of 5 stars.