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..