The King’s Speech (UK/Australia 2010)

Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter

Directed by Tom Hooper: screenplay by David Seidler. Filmed in colour and standard widescreen, running time 118 minutes.

This was the opening film at the 24th Leeds International Film Festival, screened to a crowded Town Hall. I have to confess my republican sympathies, which may well have influenced my response to this film about British royalty. Certainly a substantial section of a large audience were vocally appreciative at the end, and a friend and an experienced film buff both said that they enjoyed it and thought it was pretty good. George V’s second son Bertie is afflicted by a pronounced stutter, and various apparently prestigious medical men are unable to cure or even alleviate this. His father, who seems Victorian in outlook, insists he speaks publicly and overcome his impediment by ‘‘willpower’. However, caring wife Elizabeth discovers an Australian speech therapist. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, also an executive producer on the film) is a failed actor but has a ‘modern’ approach to tackling such disabilities. These methods seem somewhat odd at times, but prove effective. The film’s finale has Lionel discreetly supporting Bertie, now King George VI, as he delivers a crucial message to a nation now at war with Germany.

I found the lead actors the most effective aspect of this film. Colin Firth is completely believable as the afflicted monarch to be: Geoffrey Rush is suitably colonial, irreverent but sympathetic. And Helena Bonham Carter seems just as I imagined the Queen’s Mother [as I knew her] in her younger days. The film also has an array of cameos by prestigious British actors: some, like Michael Gambon as George V, were completely convincing, others, like Timothy Spall’s Churchill, seem to me to remain the actor rather than the character. Right down the supporting cast were the royal corgis. I counted one at the start, two by the mid-thirties, and only one again by the arrival of war. I was unsure if this was realism or something else: I remember how one of the four appeared to ‘pass away’ in Stephen Frears’ The Queen.

The décor, sets and costumes were beautifully done. There is a nice contrast between the royal, opulent households, and the downbeat petty bourgeois apartment of Logue and his family. Setting and décor clearly speak to the characters and their situations. And there were splendid example of vintage motor cars, aeroplanes, and so forth.

However, I found the tight focus on royalty disconcerting. Apparently the scriptwriter David Seidler himself suffered form a similar impairment to the protagonist of his film. So one can understand he might be preoccupied with Bertie and Lionel. However, there was a dearth of the people and social world of ordinary Britain in this period. There was attention to the ascension and then abdication of Edward VIII. Guy Pierce and Eve Best played the troubled monarch and Wallis Simpson effectively and sympathetically. But I thought that there was not a great sense of how it affected, or failed to affect, most ordinary people.

This was an aspect that I felt most keenly when we arrived at the war. There were various scenes with the great and the good, but the ordinary people were reduced to standing dutifully in groups listening to the King’s broadcast or waving flags and banner outside the Palace. Since this was historically the ‘people war’, and histories make much of the impact of the Royal family in this period, I felt more attention could have been placed here.

I also felt the music, well written, was slightly suspect. As the young king starts to read out his climatic speech music swells on the soundtrack. For a moment I thought it might be one of Lionel’s therapies, but it was clearly emotional accompaniment. It rather suggested a lack of confidence in the actual scene and content. This scene has several intended meanings. Earlier in the film George V complained re the radio that royalty had to become ‘actors’. But by the resolution the young king is not trying as an actor, but as a voice for the nervous and expectant nation. The festival guide suggests that the film is ‘Oscar-tipped’. Given the peculiar US interest in royalty that may well be the case. The film struck me as decent, but given the sympathetic characters involved, I did not think it achieved the emotional impact of The Queen.

The film receives a general release in the New Year. Meanwhile there is a second Festival screening at the Hyde Park Cinema on Sunday November 20th 4 p.m..

12 comments

  1. venicelion

    I agree with most of this. The central trio of Bertie, Lionel and Elizabeth are well-played and the drama is engrossing in terms of the struggle to overcome the childhood trauma. I loathed the the back story of Edward and Mrs Simpson and all the fawning. Unfortunately, I suspect that the impact of war did encourage royalist sympathies – just as this film will set up a terrible deluge of royalist hype before the bloody wedding later this year (but that’s not the film’s fault). I think that you could argue that the film’s effect is to return us to the kind of royal watching that I remember as a small child in the 1950s – in fact I remember looking through books of photographs of the royals at my aunt’s house and I realised that some of the images of the two princesses had been firmly lodged in my brain. However, the casting of the demonic little girl from Outnumbered as Princess Margaret did rather disturb the image.

    I did find the aesthetic of the film to be a little odd. The foggy streets were quite well done, but some interiors – Logue’s house when they listen to Chamberlain’s announcement of war – are quite surreal and reminded me bizarrely of Trainspotting (distorted space, I think).

    Timothy Spall didn’t work for me and Derek Jacobi was very odd indeed.

    I like Colin Firth and I hope he wins his Oscar but overall I find it quite depressing that this film is so successful. I think that Logue’s story would have been just as interesting.

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  2. OMAR

    No wonder Britain has not got a viable cinema anymore – do all of the films based in Britain simply want to remain the past and not deal with the now. I loathe this kind of cinema and have little sympathy for yet more ruling elite representations.

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    • venicelion

      Hi Omar. I’m with you in seeing The King’s Speech as a conservative film but I’m afraid that if you want to maintain the diversity of UK film culture you have to recognise that without films like The King’s Speech, some of our most revered independent cinemas simply could not survive. The education officer at one of our most important regional independent cinemas told me that the release of The King’s Speech alongside 127 Hours had given the cinema their biggest ever week. This kind of box office success exerts heavy pressure on both cinema managers and producers.

      The over 50s who have flocked to the film are an important audience growing in proportion within the UK audience profile. I think that film teacher have a big task not only in persuading the young to watch a more diverse range of films but also to keep the over 50s in cinemas, also watching a more diverse range. I know you go to Cornerhouse in Manchester where the audiences are skewed more towards the 25-35 segment. Elsewhere outside London the audience for specialised cinema is sometimes much older.

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  3. Omar

    You always succeed in putting everything into a much wider perspective – you’re right in terms of the over 50s, an audience that I will have to explore with film students. I think a large part of the film’s success in the states and in terms of winning awards has a lot to do with the Weinstein’s who have a certain knack for elevating mediocre films to Oscar glory.

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  4. keith1942

    It is true that the film is doing well at the box office. And the other staple attraction at the moment is Black Swan: a film that also displays conservative values.
    I should say I do not object to someone producing The King’s Speech, but since it purports to provide a type of historical picture its dubious content needs challenging.
    I think it is true that there was a rise in the popularity of the monarchy during the war. But this was in the context of a growing antagonism to the privileged establishment. Hence the victory of the Labour Party in 1945. There is little sense of this in the film, just an overwheening feel of deference.

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  5. keith1942

    I think the film is conservative in terms of form and style – it is another UK heritage movie.
    But even more so are the conservative values embodied in the film.
    Christopher Hitchens had a good article on the film in The Guardian this week – drawing attention to the Windsor’s sympathies with the Nazi’s and Nazi sympathisers. The film manages to draw a veil over the pro-fascist values at large in the British establishment.
    And, as I suggested in the review, it relegates ordinary working people to onlookers in the events. This is the conservative approach to history, great people trump the masses.
    And fundamentally, pro-royal propaganda 220 years after the glorious French Revolution is a bit much. When was the last decent film about 1791 and what followed?

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    • venicelion

      Yes Keith, I know The King’s Speech is conservative, it’s your mention of the “conservative values” in Black Swan which I was asking about. I added the Christopher Hitchens link in my previous comment.

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  6. OMAR

    Aronofosky + conservatism? = hmm, seems to be a mismatch here. Maybe the aesthetics are conservative? I don’t know, I will have to watch Black Swan just so I can extend this unresolved debate about conservatism and Aronofosky. Yes, the Hitchens piece was great – thanks for the tip.

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  7. keith1942

    Help, I have confused matters. I think I should put comments on The Black Swan under that title, but I think the content is defintely conservative.

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