Nick: The King’s Speech is one of those films that arrives in theaters carried on the wings of angels with trumpets blowing its fanfare and gray-haired critics sharpening their pencils to write flowery prose in praise of. It won Cannes, features enough best actor buzz to give an erection to a honey bee, and reeks of prestige in a way that we rarely see. The cast is filled with critic’s darlings and the film is period enough to satisfy that audience as well.
Now what typically happens with films whose prestigious arrival can be heard stampeding in from the countryside well prior to its release is that they either sink under their hype, end up dreadfully tame or boring, or end up hogging the stage come awards time to the chagrin of people championing the underdogs.
Luckily, The King’s Speech is a remarkably entertaining film on top of all the deserved accolades it’s received and a much-needed dose of optimism and positivity to boot. There’s something delightfully simple about a tale of a reluctant hero whose task isn’t to slay a dragon or liberate hostages but rather get around the pitfalls inside his own mouth. A prince with a stammer. The man who might be king.
Renn: I was not tuned into the buzz on this one, so walking in I was expecting a well-constructed piece that revolved around another strong performance from Colin Firth. I got exactly that, but was happily surprised by a beautiful, funny, and (as Nick said) entertaining film that was a joy to watch from frame one. We’re eased into the story with a drawn out look at the ceremony and regalness afforded to radio, in its early days when it was still a new tool and a frightening prospect for the monarchy. Shortly after we get a very clear demonstration of just how crippling the Duke of York’s speech impediment will be in this new age of reproduced voices, and the stage is set for a very clear goal- for the Duke (and eventual King) to gain control of his own ability to talk.
As you get drawn in by this wonderfully fun dance between Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, who enters as the Duke’s eccentric speech therapist, what you might not realize is how impeccably structured the film is, and how efficiently it manages themes of familial inadequacy, the fear of changing times, and historical context. All of these pressures enter the picture at just the right time to make the Duke’s treatment, which he often makes attempts to abandon, ever more important. Combine this beautiful structure with a great script that feeds these two fine actors the quality material they need to deliver delicate and real performances and you have one of the best films of the year, undoubtedly.
Nick: The main thing I took from the film was that it achieved its paydirt without a massive amount of conflict. I mean, Guy Pearce has an adversarial relationship at times as playboy brother Edward and Derek Jacobi is a controlling administrative figure but for the most part this is about a man fighting himself and his own pride. This is an easy time at the movies and the fact it’s as loose and fun as it is and still loaded with the depth and resonance all the great films have is no easy feat. It’s an effortless near-masterpiece. That said, as good as Colin Firth is in the movie Geoffrey Rush delivers a colossal and surprisingly warming performance and if the film were to earn one trophy and one alone I’d like to see it go to him.
He’s the heart and soul of the movie and he does it in a way that avoids all of the schmaltz Hollywood would’ve been forced to infuse it with.
Renn: It’s true- the layering of outside pressure along with the Duke’s constant temptation to give in to his temper or his reluctance to play the therapist’s games all work with each other in such a way that we don’t need a clear antagonist to function. It’s the future King’s own vocal impediment –more specifically the repressed feelings of inadequacy of which it is a symptom– that provide more than enough difficultly for the character to overcome.Thus the film feels free to zoom in and out of the various parts of his life that matter and we see a scene with the delightful Michael Gambon as King George V, and that one scene is enough to spell out that particular father/son relationship, and what it means to Firth’s character (and thus, how it’s contributed to the stammer). We see more of the relationship between the Duke and his brother, because that’s a more important relationship ultimately. What’s great is that even here, the film doesn’t feel compelled to draw attention to the face that the Duke’s speech impediment disappears when he’s with his brother, or make a big show of it returning when they argue. The performance, the circumstances, and the implied themes all speak for themselves, providing a hearty spine for the rest of the entertaining film.
Firth is undoubtedly Oscar-worthy with another stellar performance, and Geoffrey Rush can not be praised enough, but I was most happily surprised by Helena Bonham-Carter, who plays the Duchess of York (and eventually Queen Elizabeth). The performance is exquisite, and Carter is a treat to watch. Her physical presence, voice, and manner of speaking to commoners all demonstrate her Queenly confidence, and the confidence she feels in her husband, stammer or no. Ultimately the core of this film is the work done between Firth and Rush, but it would be a pity if Carter’s work were overlooked- it’s her most interesting in some time and proof that she is much better than the nasty Goth-Queen roles she always takes in Burton films (and even Harry Potter).
Nick: I can agree to an extent. Carter’s actually more suited to material like this than her bread and butter gothic work. She’s a classical actress with that drawn in and sad face, which explains why she’s become Tim Burton’s muse. This is where she belongs. As for Gambon, it’s really a shame that his role is so small because the actor like his king casts a large shadow over the proceedings. His sons definitely are reluctant to replace him and where he excels they struggle. There’s an entire movie in a story of a father and his sons and that’s a testament to this film’s quality in how each tangential aspect lies a compelling narrative of its own. Even the little moments between Rush and his wife Jennifer Ehle convey a deeper tapestry where some films seem to allude to lives beyond what appears onscreen and never really sell it.
Colin Firth has always been an effortless actor. He’s not a chameleon by any stretch but he doesn’t have a toolbox of gimmicks or traits he carries from role to role other than his noble appearance and the fact he’s British. Here he internalizes George’s inner turmoil and extreme frustration in a manner that transcends even his fantastic work in last years excellent A Single Man. I am still baffled that I was so compelled and moved by what is a tale of a man with a stammer. It has no right being this effective yet it is. There is also a great joy in the way this film shows two very different worlds colliding and it does so with such elegance it’s easy to forget the message being conveyed and just get swept along.
Renn: Another interesting element is that while the film doesn’t shove them down our throats, there’s no shortage of parallels to be found between the transitioning government struggling to master the radio and understand its political implications, and our leaders in today’s brave new world of ubiquitous and instantaneously shared information. In fact, at this very moment the news is led by stories of our government’s diplomatic secrets being unexpectedly shared with the wide world, met with the reactionary fear and futile gestures of those institutions as reality of the times sets in. The King’s Speech tells an interesting story of the very beginning of that paradigm shift that started then and continues today. King George IV’s unique impediment made him face the lesson sooner than most others, but it’s a lesson anyone in the spotlight had to learn: the public eye, and ear, is ever growing…
Being able to mine that kind of meaning and find that mirror to the modern world is great, but it is definitely the quality of the small details that’s letting the film contend with the best of the year. The King’s Speech is constructed from a great script that throws a lot of passes that the performances and direction catch and run with. Between the sheer entertainment of the verbal sparring between Firth and Rush, and the novel twist on the well-trodden monarchy environment- there’s not a slow, stuffy bone in the film’s body. It’s a great film that would stand tall in any year, and in one such as this it shines brightly.
Nick: Tom Hooper’s film is beautiful and aside from a few choice moments is never overtly showy. It’s that rare prestige film that has serious crossover appeal that speaks to cinéastes and laypersons and one which will undoubtedly bear fruit upon repeat viewings. How what is essentially a feel good inspirational story can be so effective and effortless is no mean feat and just one of many reasons this is going to be a serious and deserving contender come awards season.
Not that awards matter. It’s a great film in a year that can use more like it.