Character driven historical dramas used as vehicles for acting showcases have long been the bread and butter of many an Oscar campaign. The King’s Speech is one such throw-back picture, harkening to a simpler time when entertainment was good and pure. It’s 100% by-the-numbers bread and butter…but it’s that really good bread, you know the kind that is crusty on the outside and warm and tender inside, and the butter, it’s like that really fancy kind infused with garlic and stuff.
It’s the dawn of WWII in England, and the royals are still reeling from the Wallis Simpson scandal. After his brother abdicates the throne, King George VI (Colin Firth – not looking, but certainly acting the hell out of the part) reluctantly takes charge while cowering in fear of a life-long stutter. With the help of his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, still damn good when not stuck in Tim Burton films) he finds an unlikely speech therapist in the Australian Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush in his wheelhouse) to help him overcome his stammering. You see, Mr. Logue has some unorthodox methods that force the stiff monarch to let down his guard. Eventually a friendship is formed, and through this relationship, the king finds his voice and is able to lead.
Just when you start to question why they even have a royal family anymore, the British have this great knack for churning up a bit of their history and turning it into a fine film that reminds the world why they love their royals. King George VI is depicted as the voice of his people, a symbol for Great Britain’s stance against the encroaching power of Nazi Germany. His speeches gave his people hope in the darkest of times, and his personal struggle to overcome a “common” psychological problem makes him relatable to a new generation.
Although there may have been a bigger payoff had a deeper exploration gone into the psychology of oration which compared the devious means of great public speakers with real power like Hitler and Mussolini (who was peripherally explored earlier in 2010 in Vincere) against a figurehead like King George VI, screenwriter David Seidler (inspired by his own personal struggles with stuttering) was probably wise to focus on the human drama and the relationship between the king and Logue. He provides two veteran character actors a chance to play off each other, and that’s a solid enough payoff in itself.
Director Tom Hooper, who has plied his trade in some of HBO’s greatest historical miniseries (Elizabeth I and John Adams) gets his first stab at a large-scale film production, and he makes the transition smoothly. He carries over to this project that same keen sense of period detail (check out Logue’s office with the chipped and peeling walls) and atmosphere (all that fog) that lend his works palpable authenticity. He’s also never met a crooked angle or off-center frame he didn’t like. Somewhere down the line this guy has to make a period-piece noir — an adaptation of a classic Graham Greene novel would seem right up his alley. Oh, what wonders he could do with a faithful adaptation of A Gun for Sale!
And it’s funny…the England on display here is Greene’s England – on the brink of war, just before the romance and horrors of the London blitz. I wonder what he thought of King George VI in real life? Greene was also a film lover and critic…and I think even his hardened, cynical type would’ve found The King’s Speech in great favor.
Written by David H. Schleicher