Reviewed by James Owen
If Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech” were graded on an art-house test for aesthetics, it would ace. Hooper impeccably films the English countryside in elegant tones. The1920’s and 1930’s are perfectly replicated. If you could buy a “British-Movie-in-a-Box” Filmmakers Kit, it would tell you to cast Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, and Michael Gambon. I mean, these people account for almost all of the Harry Potter films and whatever dreck Richard Curtis is writing. What else does British filmmaking do besides humanize the affluent? How could the average “cinephile” resist heading down to the local micro-cinema, throwing down six bucks for a beer, and feeling good about enjoying THIS TYPE of movie?
Underneath the technical precision of “The King’s Speech” is a disingenuous tale that feels hardly worth telling. The story of King George the VI (Firth) overcoming his speech impediment in order to “inspire the Empire’s subject’s” suffers by its insignificance within the larger context of World War II. King George the V (Gambon, wheezing and coughing his way to thespian glory) is near-dead. The eldest son, King Edward the VIII (Guy Pearce), is courting not only an American, but a divorced American. The Church of England cannot bless this unholy union, so he abdicates the throne almost as soon as the crown is placed on his head. Not to mention Britain faces the growing threat of Nazism with the march of Hitler descending over Europe. Add the transition from Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to appeaser Neville Chamberlain, and we’ve got ourselves quite a hotbed of historical drama.
So why turn this into a boilerplate personal tale of facing adversity and overcoming the odds? Why focus on Bertie’s attempt to clear up his stammering with the help of middle-class therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush)? To give the audience something root for, I suppose. Besides, dramatizing the tension between the Royal Family and the Prime Minister in dealing with the threat of political and militaristic extremism doesn’t sounds hard and not much like high-minded holiday fun. But personalizing and simplistically dramatizing the King’s stuttering? Stand up and cheer! Royals, they’re just like us!
This misplaced focus not only overstates the story’s historical import, it overstates the role of the monarchy—especially in a time of war. Much is made of the King’s respect for Hitler’s ability to move the masses, but can the King’s voice be that important if he’s not actually conducting the war? As any cursory examination of history shows, in the crucial moments, King George was constitutionally required to consent to Chamberlain’s capitulations. “The King’s Speech” never gets to that point, feeling satisfied to climax on a speech of irrelevance, as political impotent as the official role of the main character (judge for yourself). This isn’t just bad storytelling; it leaves the audience with the illusion of optimism during one of London’s darkest hours.
“The King’s Speech” not only succumbs to the obvious metaphor of overcoming a speech impediment to “speak” to the masses, the story falls into a familiar pattern. At first, Lionel implores his new patient to work on enunciation. Of course, he finds that the problem isn’t oratorical but psychological. If the King could just speak about his childhood trauma, self-doubt, and inner worth, then he can speak to his people. This is not a film about speech therapy, but therapy. I cannot speak to the particulars of speech therapy, but it seems convenient that, according to “The King’s Speech,” speech therapy mirrors the psychological theatrics of “Ordinary People” or “Good Will Hunting” or….or….let’s just go with “Antwone Fisher.”
Therapist-patient movies usually aren’t exercises in cinematic language (the canvas of this film might actually be the most ambitious of this sub-genre), but they are often good acting showcases. Having actors scream and stomp about their feelings is as meaty as any script can get for a razor-toothed thespian. Geoffrey Rush is game, even if the failed-actor pathos of his character is forced, simply to create a false tension bridging the second and third act.
But, despite whatever Rush can do to overcome his material, there is something about Firth’s performance that leaves me cold; something I felt in last year’s “A Single Man”. Perhaps it is his specialty in distant, repressed characters—his tendency to turn every role into a post-modern version of Mr. Darcy that distances himself from the audience. If this is his purpose, then he does it well. But here, the whole point is to help us see how the King reached his people—his audience. In fact, the climax suggests that the man didn’t have a real relationship with his subjects. They are unwashed blurs staring at a radio, perhaps the most emotional closeness Firth can offer. And perhaps as much as “The King’s Speech” is willing to muster, too.
While there is some connection there, overcoming a lifelong speech impediment can’t be as simple as unloading a bunch of Daddy issues and unearthing hazy memories of child abuse. Having such a negative reaction to such a polished production makes me a bit sad; there was a time I would drive three hours to the nearest art-plex to lavishly bathe myself in such production values and high dramatics, coming out the other side a baptized believer. It’s best to be more guarded against beautiful vapidity. “The King’s Speech” certainly looks fulfilling but should leave you craving more.