Friday, January 7, 2011

Film Review: The King’s Speech – Fear and Stammering in Buckingham Palace

The-Kings-SpeechIn the past all a King had to do was look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse. Now we must invade people’s homes and ingratiate ourselves with them. This family is reduced to those lowest, basest of all creatures...we’ve become...actors!

So says Michael Gambon, portraying King George V, in The King’s Speech.  The film flitters through the 1930s, chronicling the rise of King George VI (Colin Firth), while technological advances loom on the horizon beside the Second World War.  Kings are starting to feel less like kings and more like fancily-dressed public servants.

Much of the prerelease hype for The King’s Speech focused on Firth’s performance.  Despite a handful of BAFTAs and some Oscar nominations, Firth’s never taken home Academy hardware.  For those winless thus far, character studies about royalty aren’t the worst place to start.

The King’s Speech, however, is no mere star vehicle or period piece.  It’s a sharp-witted study of fear – of technology, revolution, responsibility – that is shockingly relevant to our time. 

At the film’s start, George VI is merely Prince Albert, Duke of York, affectionately referred to by his family as Bertie.  In a matter of minutes, director Tom Hooper makes the stakes surrounding Bertie painfully clear.  He is to give a public address at the Empire Exhibition – a massive colonial exhibition meant to glorify the British empire.  Bertie’s crippling speech impediment renders the event a colossal failure. 

Succumbing to the not-so-gentle nudges of his wife Elizabeth (a warmer, more likable Helena Bonham Carter than I’ve seen in ages), Bertie enlists the aid of a failed actor-turned-speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  Logue’s approach is unorthodox: he demands that the Prince see him in his dull Harley Street flat, and he strives to address the psychological cause behind the ailment.  The burgeoning friendship between Bertie and Logue is frequently tested as Logue pushes his patient to confront the fear that causes the stammer.loguebertiekingsThe reality of that fear sets The King’s Speech above mere period drama or actor showpiece.  The above quote Gambon delivers neatly spells out the monumental impact of wireless radio broadcasts.  Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler parallel this technological revolution with the political unrest that followed the First World War.  Following George V’s death, Bertie’s brother David (Guy Pearce) assumes the throne as Edward VIII.  In one heated exchange at a lavish party for David’s American mistress, Bertie informs his brother that is not a good time to be a king.

Unfortunately, David quickly abdicates the throne (so as to run off with his love Wallis Simpson), and the crown falls to Bertie.  A few crucial speeches are soon his to deliver as King George VI, including a nationwide radio address following Britain’s declaration of war against Hitler’s Germany.  Bertie’s personal struggles are now in direct opposition to the role he must play for his country.  Frustrated, nervous, and crunched for time, he explodes to Logue:

“If I am King, where is my power? Can I declare war? Form a government? Levy a tax? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority because they think that when I speak, I speak for them.”

This theme of monarchical impotence runs throughout the film.  George V signs away his throne mere feet from his deathbed, sick and disoriented.  Edward VIII flees the throne to pursue his love for Ms. Simpson.  George VI trembles at the sight of a microphone, and it is only in the absence of others that he takes the crown.  Some problems eclipse even the faculties of kings.  How ironic is it then that one of the film’s heroes is a working class locution instructor. 

the-kings-speechThe attention lavished on Firth is well-deserved.  His Bertie is incredibly human: witty, loving, but burdened with incredible obstacles.  And his portrayal of the stammer elicits such pathos – never before have I so wanted to hug a king.But it is Rush’s turn as Logue that truly surprises.  Seidler saved most of the laugh lines (another welcome surprise: there are laugh lines) for Logue, and Rush delivers them with gleeful candor.  Of course, he’s no cartoon.  Logue’s audition for an amateur Shakespeare production is as heart-wrenching as it is humorous.  The two play off one another easily and thoughtfully, proving the film to be far more versatile than your average kingly drama.

Hooper’s visual craft is no less agile.  He and his cinematographer Danny Cohen use varied senses of scale and space to connect Bertie’s impediment to the immense pressures of the monarchy.  Ominous centered close-ups of the radio microphones project coldness.  Logue’s cramped office constricts just as the echoing expanses of Westminster Abbey suffocates.  During therapy sessions, Bertie and Logue inhabit frames with mirrored chunks of negative space, implying the roles they are to fill in one another’s lives.  None of the shots feel dusty, and moments of reverence are few and far between.

One shot lingers long enough so as to be unavoidable.  After his coronation, Bertie sits in a private screening room with his family, watching footage of Hitler’s impassioned public speaking.  When asked what he thinks, Bertie remarks to his daughter that he believes the man is a good speaker.  For just a moment, his fear is replaced with a stoic curiosity.

Early on, Logue tells Bertie that fear is the cause of his stammer, not biomechanical flaws.  The King’s Speech shows how paralyzing and all-encompassing fear can be.  Fear of dizzying technological advancement, of social upheaval and powerful new enemies, of our own responsibilities – to learn from and quell that fear is to be a king.