Saturday, January 08, 2011

Review - The King's Speech

There's a scene in The King's Speech in which Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) is encouraged by unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to use language most unsuitable for a future king as part of his treatment. Lionel asks the Duke to let off some steam and try swearing, the idea being that the use of taboo language and bursts of passion will help him overcome some of the inhibitions that cause him to stall and stammer in his speech. At first, the Duke is understandably reluctant, forcing out a meek "Willy" or "Tits", and when Lionel asks him to try "the F-word," he responds with "Fornication!" Within moments, however, Albert is roaring the word "Fuck" at the top of his voice, and blasting his way joyously through his linguistic blocks.

It's a great sight, but it's one of the few scenes in The King's Speech that allows a sense of life and passion to explode amid the stuffy surroundings. No wonder Firth and Rush seem to be enjoying themselves so much; they're like a pair of naughty kids who have broken ranks from their own film. I started longing for more sequences to display such a spark, but alas, for most of its running time, The King's Speech is stiff, conventional and unimaginative filmmaking. It strikes me as a picture that would be more comfortable on the BBC one Sunday night than it is on the big screen, but here we are seeing The King's Speech winning rave reviews and awards, although in some cases, it is easy to see why.

Colin Firth certainly merits all the praise he has been receiving for his technically proficient and sincere portrayal of Albert. No actor since Anthony Hopkins in his mid-90's heyday has proven as skilled at playing repressed characters, uncomfortable in their own skin and tormented by their unspoken emotions. In the opening sequence he is already wracked with self-doubt. We meet him behind the scenes at Wembley, where he is due to make a speech in front of a large and expectant crowd, but his crippling stammer stops him in his tracks. The agonising awkwardness and embarrassment is shared by everyone, with director Tom Hooper using off-centre framing to decent effect, even if he resorts to this visual motif too often for it to remain effective.

In desperation, having seen a number of doctors with increasingly wacky remedies, Albert's wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter – so nice to see her playing a real person again) tracks down speech therapist Lionel and asks him to help. He agrees, but on his terms; "My castle, my rules" is his line. Lionel is a failed Australian actor whose down-to-earth attitude creates an instant odd couple dynamic with Albert (whom he scandalously refers to by his more intimate nickname "Bertie"), and everything that's fun about The King's Speech exists in this relationship. There are amusing montages of Lionel putting Bertie through his physical paces, scenes of bonding in which Lionel challenges the future king to confront the root emotional cause of his affliction, and subsequent scenes of tension when he pushes too far. Their exchanges might be simplistically written, but at all times Firth and Rush looks like they're having a terrific time with these characters, and their interplay is extremely entertaining throughout.

But where's the drama in The King's Speech? Albert reaches a critical juncture when his father (Michael Gambon) dies and his brother King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce on decent form) abdicates after declaring his love for divorcée Wallis Simpson, all of which forces Albert to assume the throne as King George VI. Derek Jacobi (obviously suppressing a severe case of stutter-envy) pops up as an officious Archbishop to preside over his coronation, and a bit of faux-tension is created when he reveals Lionel's lack of qualifications, before being quickly resolved. However, the real story of the film's second half is the looming threat of the Second World War (complete with the sudden presence of Winston Churchill, played by a comically awful Timothy Spall), with the King being required to address the nation in its hour of need.

It's the perfect note for The King's Speech to end on, and Hooper finishes in rousing style, with this final set-piece being edited together skilfully to the accompaniment of a soaring Beethoven symphony. As the director cuts between the King and Logue carefully negotiating the pitfalls of the speech, the Queen and their aides nervously listening in, and the hope-filled faces of the British public, he builds a sense of momentum that can't fail to lift the audience out of their seats and send them from the cinema on a high. I wonder if this climax has hoodwinked audiences into thinking The King's Speech is a better movie than it actually is, though? The whole film seems to be designed around its final scene, but its impact fails to disguise how pedestrian so much of the movie is, and how little it has to say.