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Non-Review Review: The King’s Speech

The King’s Speech seems like the perfect storm of awards buzz. Released as we enter the year of a big royal wedding, featuring a lead actor who was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar last year, it seems to have an edge. In fact, my inner cynic went into the cinema listing off all the standard stereotypical Oscar bait criteria that the movie met: person overcoming adversity; unlikely friendship across social class; beautiful period costumes; hint of class; historical true story; tied in some way to the Second World War; a cast of respected and veteran character actors. I don’t think it would have been possible to plan a movie that so perfectly designed to win prestigious awards. I guess we should be thankful that it’s really very good.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown... but it does have great hair, though...

The movie works because the script and the actors make us believe in the lead characters and the relationship. The dynamic between king and commoner has always been a truly fascinating one, but a difficult one to create on-screen without seeming somewhat dishonest or favouring one over the other. The best thing that the movie does is to make the relationship between Prince Albert and Lionel, his speech therapist, seem real and organic, without ever seeming forced or cheesy.

It helps, of course, that Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are just that good. A speech impediment isn’t a life-threatening condition, but Firth makes you feel like Albert’s problem is a serious one which he has honestly had to live with. Of course, the movie wrings its drama from the fact that the world is changing – Albert’s father, George V, remarks that in the past all a King had to do was “look respectable in uniform and not fall off his horse“, but this is the era of the wireless. If Albert ever becomes King, he will have to address the Empire – and he simply can’t do that.

However, it’s Firth that sells us the real cost of Albert’s speech impediment.There’s a beautiful scene early on where Albert attempts to tell a story to his children about some penguins. He stutters through it in his own time, and his children listen eagerly, but you can tell that he’s struggling. Imagine not being able to tell your own children a simple bedtime story without tripping over your own words – that is what Albert is struggling with, and it’s that humanity which underlines the story. The greater historical context is, of course, fascinating – but Firth makes you see the man rather than the position, the real personal cost.

What's the Rush?

Rush is similarly impressive as the speech therapist who, through his unconventional approaches, attempts to help Albert. “A failed actor”, as he is described at one point, you get the sense that he is using Albert just as much as Albert is using him. Not intentionally, or even consciously, but there’s still a strange co-dependence there. Lionel never feels manipulative or cynical, but we understand his own desire to see Albert accomplish – even as Albert himself doesn’t necessarily want to.

The core dynamic of the film really works, as does its historical setting. Director Tom Hooper makes the movie look amazing – despite the focus on the two leads, there’s an undeniable sense of scale. Although it’s undoubtedly an intimate character study, any character study of royalty inevitably involves some sense of elegance and grandeur, and Hooper makes it work sublimely. The script from David Seidler is smart and funny, with just the right amount of wit and irony to balance out the drama.

However, there were some elements which concerned me. The most obvious was the way that the film treated its supporting characters. Understandably, given the nature of the film and its setting, there are a lot of recognisable names and faces surrounding Albert. There’s obviously his wife, Elizabeth, who still rules over England (the fact she ends up Queen isn’t really a spoiler, given the movie’s title), along with Albert’s brother David and future Prime Minister Winston Churchill. These are epic and grand characters who all play huge parts in the tapestry of world history.

I take my hat off to him...

Unfortunately, here they seem very much two-dimensional. I frequently found myself describing Timothy Spall’s Churchill and Helena Bonham Carter’s Elizabeth as “adorable”. My better half wondered if Spall was playing Churchill the Man Who Saved England or Churchill the Dog Who Sells Insurance. It isn’t necessarily the fault of the actors. Carter is great as Elizabeth, the constantly supportive wife of Prince Albert. There’s a sense that she genuinely loves him… and that’s her defining character trait. There’s no sense of anything grander than that, no nuance or sophistication.

The rest of her characterisation seems to come and go as the plot demands it – she’s willing to sit on her husband’s chest as he exercises his diaphragm in one scene (hardly the most dignified position for a future Queen – she remarks, “this is quite fun”), but stands on custom and tradition later on (“it’s mam as in ham, not ma’am as in palm”). There’s no sense of the woman who would live more than half a century after the death of her husband, remaining in public life as the Queen Mother or Queen Mum.

Similarly, Spall’s version of Churchill is a collection of quirks. The real Churchill was the kind of person you could easily describe as  “a character”, a fact which makes him difficult for actors to play – even the most faithful impersonation can seem reductive if he simply strolls around holding a cigar and offering the occasional witticism. Much like Richard Nixon, one gets the sense that a really good actor can find the heart of the character by discarding most of the conventional physical and verbal tics allowing you to see a man rather than a pantomime performer – that’s why Anthony Hopkins was so effective in Nixon and why Brendan Gleeson was so fantastic in Into The Storm. Spall plays these quirks relatively well, but at times he reminds me more of the Penguin than of the First Lord of the Admiralty. So Churchill here seems rather disappointing – if this were a romantic comedy, he’d be the slightly quirky friend to the male lead, rather than the one person standing between Hitler and global dominance.

Helena Bonham Carter is still the Queen of Hearts... (and Minds)...

That said, what I find most fascinating is the way that the relationship between Prince David and Wallis Simpson is presented. The movie seems intent to present the couple as out-of-touch at the best of moments, and downright cynical at the worst. Still, I suppose that it beats Any Human Heart, the television series airing on the BBC, where the couple are actually presented as murderers. I always found it interesting that their relationship is so consistently portrayed in such a cynical and unflattering light. A King giving up his title and position for his true love is the sort of thing that you only read about in fairytales – although they continued to be wealthy after their marriage, David lost his inheritance and his family to be with her. That makes it seem like the kind of story which makes for a good fairytale – “it doesn’t matter what we lose, as long as we have each other” and “true love conquers all” sort of thing.

However, the movie seeks to make them villains simply because the movie believes that it needs villains. So it paints Wallis Simpson as something of a harlot and turns David into a domineering bully, because the movie thinks that we need that in order to root for Albert – which seems a tad simplistic, to be honest. Although the movie is correct when it points out that Wallis was unfaithful to David, the characters and the movie insist on painting Mrs. Simpson as something of a two-dimensional skank. Churchill even makes reference to the rumours (never substantiated and frequently derided by historians) about Wallis’ time in China. “Apparently she has certain skills,” Churchill explains to Albert, “acquired at an establishment in Shanghai.” While the film has no hesitation in judging her, it never dares to suggest that perhaps there’s something wrong with a system which doesn’t recognise a woman’s right to divorce. After all, even if she were a saint, David would still have had to abdicate to be with the woman he loved.

Did Lionel and Albert deal with things off the record?

I think it’s possible to tell the story of David’s abdication and Albert’s ascension as a collision of two tragedies – both characters can be victims of circumstance, rendering the whole fiasco even sadder. Instead, the movie stops just short of drawing cartoon mustaches on David and Wallis. They are portrayed as nothing but obstacles put in Albert’s way – ones that he is far too decent a man to confront head-on, but which need to be overcome no matter what. It just feels a bit cheap, and it’s not something the movie necessarily needed.

Maybe I’m dwelling too much on this. It’s a good film. It is, in fact, a very good film. The two lead performers knock it out of the park and they are superbly supported by a fine selection of character actors, each of whom manages to play their role in this particular story wonderfully effectively. I am, however, a bit disappointed at how simple the movie renders its supporting characters and how much the movie feels the need to load the die against its protagonist. Albert is a compelling character, even without making his brother into a self-righteous moron.

It’s a good film, and a great start to the Irish Oscar season. Our cinemas will be flooded with potential Oscar contenders over the next few weeks, significantly behind our American cousins. The King’s Speech might not be perfect, but it does bode well.

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5 Responses

  1. Very nice review. I agree with you on the David-Wallis relationship, but I might argue it’s an understandable addition. It seemed to me that the movie wanted to maintain Alpert and Lionel as the emotional crux to lean on. If they were to amp up the ‘romanticized’ drama between Alpert’s brother and lover, then they would be creating a third emotional crux. One that, in the entire context of the story, isn’t all that crucial. They sort of treat the endeavor as I expected them to – a stepping stone with the potential for a few good laughs and tears before moving on to the heavy hitting drama.

    I definitely agree that there could have at least been one line from Elizabeth, Alpert, or most definitely Lionel (who seemed so intent on sarcastically jousting all other Kingly traditions) to undercut the religious ideal without making the film seem preachy.

    • Yep, it just struck me as odd. I don’t know – I didn’t even need anything more from Wallis and David (as you said, perhaps adding material would have weakened the film), but I could have done without the scene where David pauses to mock his brother’s stutter. It’s a scene that only exists to make the audience actively dislike David (regardless of everything else the movie suggests that he was never meant to be king). Making fun of a person’s disability is just short of torturing a small animal in terms of drawing audience hatred. Albert mentions that his elder brother used to tease him when they were younger, so it’s not too much of a surprise, but it’s surreal to watch Guy Pearce drop the “idiot in love” act for those thirty seconds and then go back to it like nothing happened.

      It’s played almost like a big reveal. This would be the point in the thriller where the bumbling David was revealed as the psychopathic killer – it’s the point where the movie actual makes him more than a major inconvenience to Albert, but actually a bad guy.

  2. A mild factual point – the Elizabeth played by Bonham-Carter is in fact the mother of the current Queen Elizabeth – who does appear in this film as one of the two daughters seen throughout – and therefore is more well known to modern audiences as the Queen Mother alive until about a decade ago.
    Therefore, your criticism that “there’s no sense of the woman who will succeed her husband and steer the crown through to the modern day” is a misplaced one.

  3. I enjoyed reading your post! It is true that the believable relationship is what fuels our interest in the film. Please check out my cinematographic approach to analyzing the film.

    http://jacobsfilms.wordpress.com/2012/07/04/the-kings-speech-2010-part-1-cinematographic-choices-in-a-powerful-scene/

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