It's not always great to be the king.
(2010) Historical Drama (Weinstein) Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, Jennifer Ehle, Derek Jacobi, Claire Bloom, Timothy Spall, Eve West, Roger Parrott, Anthony Andrews, Patrick Ryecart. Directed by Tom Hooper
Uneasy lies the head where rests the crown. So said Shakespeare, and so it is in reality. Even those close to the crown may rest uneasy.
It is 1925 at Wembley Stadium and the British Empire is at its zenith. Fully one quarter of the world’s population lives within its borders and King George V (Gambon) rules it serenely. Radio has become a fact of life, and even the monarchy must learn to adjust to it. At the closing ceremonies of the Empire Exhibition, Prince Albert (Firth), second in line to the throne, must give a speech that will be broadcast on the BBC. Unfortunately, Albert is a terrible stammerer and any sort of public speaking is the equivalent for him of undergoing the tender mercies of The Rack. Even though his sensible and supportive wife Elizabeth (Carter) is there for moral support, the speech goes horribly.
Years go by and Elizabeth and Albert try to get some sort of speech therapy, anything to cure his condition. The cures range from marbles in the mouth, Demosthenes-style to excessive smoking which is said to relax the muscles in the throat.
Nothing works. Albert’s father realizes that his younger son is a good man who would make a better king than his older brother David (Pearce) who is “carrying on” with a twice-divorced married American woman named Wallis Simpson (West). He seems a decent enough sort but he has little backbone and with Hitler making all sorts of noise in Europe, a strong King is needed.
But England is going to get something different. King George passes away, leaving David in charge, under the name of Edward VIII. However, he is unwilling to give up on Mrs. Simpson, who now has the King of England pouring her drinks for her.
Realizing that there was a more than decent chance that he may have to give more public speeches than at first was thought, Elizabeth finds an Australian named Lionel Logue (Rush), a failed actor who comes highly recommended. His methods are indeed unorthodox, as they involve getting to know his clients personally. That involves calling the Prince by his nickname Bertie, which is mortifying at first.
Soon, the prince learns little by little to trust his new elocutionist. Grudgingly, slowly, he begins to open up to the Aussie. As he does, his stammer begins to disappear, although not completely. There is some hope that he may yet be able to fulfill his public functions more gracefully.
The Edward and Mrs. Simpson scandal at last comes to a head and Edward abdicates, leaving the throne of England for the now thrice-divorced American. Now Albert is king, George VI and the monarch of the United Kingdom, a country on the brink of war, a war in which he must lead with a voice both authoritative and regal. It will be up to Lionel to provide him with that voice.
First, this is one of the best movies of the year, so let’s get that right out of the way. What makes it so good starts off with the casting. Every role has the right person in it, from Spall as the Bulldog-like Churchill to Bloom as the dowager Queen Mary. Everyone assumes their role perfectly, not performing so much as they are inhabiting.
Before I get to the top-billed players, I wanted to mention a few other performances. Derek Jacobi does a fine job (as always) as the Archbishop of Canterbury, playing him as both manipulative and somewhat stymied by the stammering King whom he underestimates. Jennifer Ehle, as Logue’s long-suffering wife, has some excellent scenes with Helena Bonham Carter; it turns out that she is a fine comic actress as well as a dramatic one, even if her fansite chided me for not listing her in the fall preview. I stand corrected, my friends.
Helena Bonham Carter has been getting some notice for her portrayal of Bellatrix LeStrange in the Harry Potter movies, a deliciously evil role that Carter has sunk her teeth into; however, here she plays a much less flamboyant role and carries it off very nicely. It’s not acting that gets noticed as much as it perhaps should be, but it adds a certain flavor to the overall dish. Guy Pearce is one of those actors who seems incapable of a bad performance, and when he’s in a good movie given a well-defined role, he gives performances that are as good as anyone, and better than most. He may well join Rush in a Best Supporting Actor nomination in February.
The relationship between Bertie and Lionel is the heart of the movie and Hooper did well to cast two of the best actors working in them in Firth and Rush. Rather than vying for their screen time, they complement each other nicely and this works best for the movie overall.
Each performance is different and special. Firth imbues the King with courage and dignity, something that we common folk don’t usually regard the royal class as having. He becomes instantly relatable, overcoming his own personal difficulty and in doing so, becoming greater than the sum of his parts. Firth’s performance captures the frustration the man felt over his impediment, the fear he felt at taking on an enormous responsibility, one that was never intended for him and the genuine caring he felt for his subjects and his family. His interaction with his daughters Elizabeth and Margaret, the former being the present Queen of England, is part of the movie’s basic charm.
This is a movie in which class distinctions become blurred as the King learns to trust his subject and the commoner learns that the King is just a man. They find common ground and become friends, a friendship which apparently lasted for the rest of their lives. Some have criticized it for being too much of a feel-good movie, but what’s wrong with feeling good, especially in these times?
At the end of the day, we all must find our voice in one fashion or another and watching King George VI find his is fascinating viewing. The marvelous performances of Firth, Rush, Pearce and Carter are certain to be accorded Oscar consideration, as Hooper, writer David Seidler and the motion picture itself will be as well. For my personal awards show, The King’s Speech is hands down this year’s Best Picture and Firth it’s Best Actor. They can thank the Academy of Me later.
REASONS TO GO: One of the best movies of the year. Colin Firth gives another Oscar-worthy performance while nearly his entire supporting cast does the same.
REASONS TO STAY: Those who aren’t big on British period dramas should probably give this a wide berth.
FAMILY VALUES: The King utters a few naughty words. There is also a good deal of smoking which apparently relaxes the diaphragm.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The studio appealed its “R” rating which was given it due to the repeated use of the f bomb which the studio contended was used for speech therapy purposes; unfortunately, the MPAA turned down the appeal.
HOME OR THEATER: Although this is essentially set in enclosed places for the most part, I do recommend seeing this as one of the best movies of the year, although it will probably work just as well at home.
FINAL RATING: 10/10
TOMORROW: Astro Boy