Thursday, February 24, 2011

The King’s Speech: The Royal Hype

Being the film favored to win Best Picture is a double edged sword. The filmmakers, producers, actor, and other nominees get to soak up the accolades, and then the little bastards like me are sitting in front of their computer screens lining up to take potshots at the giant. Most of the time, the criticisms of a prohibitive favorite is just counter-hype to the hype; it is human nature in some of us to criticize what is popular. And yet, while I thought The King’s Speech was an excellent film, I guess I’m a little like Chuck D in saying “Don’t believe the hype!”

For starters, I’ll talk about what the film does well. The film makes what sounds like a dreadfully boring subject—a king having to overcome a crippling stutter (though in Britain it is a stammer—stammer/stutter; tomato/tomahto—just another example of differences in a shared language)—into a film filled with humor, inspiration and urgency. David Seidler (at 73, a first time Oscar nominee for Original Screenplay) nurtured the idea of the story since his childhood. Seidler, having himself overcome a stutter, discovered a kinship with the subject of the film—King George VI. When he became a writer in adulthood, Seidler vowed to write a story about how George VI overcame his difficulties. After decades of research and having to gain the express permission of the Queen Mum—George VI’s wife and mother to the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II—with the added caveat that Seidler not begin work on the story in earnest until after the Queen Mum died (of this Seidler jokes, “I didn’t know she would live to be 186”—exaggerating the fact that the Queen Mum did live to the exceptionally old age of 101). Seidler’s personal dedication to the story can be clearly felt when watching the film; his screenplay is immensely successful at reminding the audience that underneath all of the royal trapping, George VI was all too human.

The screenplay is also brought to life by some immensely talented actors. Heading up the cast is Colin Firth—a long respected actor in the role of a lifetime—as King George VI (after I list the other actors, I will focus more in-depth on Firth’s performance). Firth is the favorite to win Best Actor, an award that if he wins, will be certainly deserved. Ably supporting him are Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, speech therapist to George VI, and Helena Bonham-Carter as Elizabeth, Duchess of York (aka The Queen Mum). Rush, who also executive-produced the film, has the most important role in the film. As Logue, Rush’s character speaks for us commoners in the audience watching the film. He also is crucial in supporting Firth—the antagonistic methods Logue uses in speech therapy help to humanize George VI, and the long stretches of dialogue between the two characters give Rush and Firth ample time to develop a true and real relationship between their two characters. Bonham-Carter’s role is far less showy, but the actress instinctively knows that her character must be a steadying influence, for in many ways, Elizabeth has to be the one to give a voice to her husband when he is unable to do so. It’s also nice to see Bonham-Carter in a role that isn’t in a Tim Burton film or some sort of variation of the trashy gutterslut she has played since 1999’s Fight Club.

The smaller supporting roles are equally well acted. The chameleonic Australian actor Guy Pearce (who has played such varied roles as the man who cannot form new memories in Memento, to the over-confident detective in L.A. Confidential, and finally a massively flaming drag queen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert—Pearce’s first role) has a ball as George VI’s older brother King Edward VIII. Pearce plays Edward VIII as the ultimate party boy; it is his affair with American socialite Wallis Simpson—a fine Eve Best—that forces Edward VIII to abdicate the throne, setting the stage for George VI’s ascension. Michael Gambon, in a far cry from his most famous role as Albus Dumbledore, is menacing and regal as the father to both men, King Edward VII. Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi is nicely skeptical as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Timothy Spall (another Harry Potter alum) makes an excellent Winston Churchill. The King’s Speech is certainly an actor’s showcase, and the work of the many fine British, Australian, and Irish actors in the production are on fine display.

Firth though, is in a class by himself with his performance in this picture. What I really admired about his performance was that he truly understood the debilitating effects stuttering can have on the stutterer. On a personal note, I stuttered quite badly when I was in junior high school. Not quite to the degree that George VI does in the film, but enough so that I too had to take speech therapy. Most films portray stuttering simply as a vocal tic, and mostly for laughs. What most films with stutters fail to take into consideration is the physical toll stuttering takes on the body of the stutterer. A speaker with a terrible stutter can feel their entire body seize up and collapse. When I stuttered, I often felt as if my body would implode through my mouth. It is a devastating, weakening feeling to have your voice betray your entire body. I could tell that Firth did his research when it comes to stuttering; I felt George VI’s physical anguish in watching the performance onscreen. Firth knew that the affliction isn’t simply a tic or stumbling over words; stuttering is a crisis of the body. It’s a masterful physical performance. Couple that with a deep understanding of the character—overcoming the stutter aside, Firth illuminates the mental conflict of a man who does not wish to be thrust into a position of authority and responsibility, yet knows he must do so against his nature—and what Colin Firth gives us is a performance for the ages. Any other issues I have with the film aside, Firth assures himself of immortality in The King’s Speech.

The problems I have with the film are twofold. One, for as beautifully made and exquisitely acted The King’s Speech may be; the film is void of any truly original ideas. It’s a lovely historical drama, but it is nothing I haven’t seen before and many times over. As far as British royalty goes, Victoria, Elizabeth I & II, George III, Henry V and VIII, and Richard III—and even figures like Edward Longshanks (Edward I) was a key supporting character in the Best Picture-winning Braveheart—have all been depicted on screen within the last 25 years, in films that have garnered significant awards attention. I guarantee there will be another quality film made about British royalty made in the near future. I am not trying to diminish the quality of any of these films, nor am I trying to say that the life of every monarch is exactly the same, but the fact is that the British monarchy continues to be an endless source of inspiration for filmmakers, and the Royals undoubtedly hold the imaginations of massive worldwide audiences (though as an American, I’ve never seen what the whole fuss over the Royals is about.) There’s nothing in The King’s Speech that hasn’t been done before.

The second part of my disdain toward the film is the fact that The King’s Speech is such a blatant magnet for the Academy Awards. Studios will continue to fund the making of these types of films because of the fact they generate so much Academy attention, and The King’s Speech, which leads all 2010 films with 12 Oscar nominations, is no exception to that rule. A tastefully made period film is an annual event come Oscar season, and there is undoubtedly an audience—and a core section of Academy voters—who feels that quality filmmaking is strictly associated with lavish costumes and sets and stories that depict historical events. These films are quintessential Oscar bait. Because of this line of thinking, I think The King’s Speech has earned nominations in categories it does not deserve—namely Best Director, where I feel that while Tom Hooper does a fine job, it is nowhere on the visionary level of David Fincher or Darren Aronofsky—his co-nominees—and especially nowhere near the creative genius of Christopher Nolan, who was not even nominated! The film was also distributed in the United States by The Weinstein Company, whose co-founder, former Miramax studios head Harvey Weinstein is undoubtedly the most effective and notorious Oscar campaigner of all time.

Finally, the storyline, while effective, plays to the corniest of themes: the uplift of the human spirit. The Academy members are total suckers for films that have stories of men and women—preferably important historical figures—who must struggle to overcome a great obstacle (or obstacles) to achieve a seemingly impossible goal. That shit is so safe, and so played out, but every year you can bank on a film with this theme winning over the hearts of Oscar voters—not to mention the everyday moviegoer. What really kills me is that this year, there is another film nominated for Best Picture—Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours—which also has the uplift of the human spirit as its central theme, but Boyle approaches the material with such a fresh eye that that I actually felt uplifted by the end of the movie. What does The King’s Speech do? It shows us a George VI at the beginning of the film who can barely string two words together and by the end of the film; he has delivered a patriotic speech that reassures his country as they enter WWII. In case you weren’t aware, when George VI receives applause at the end of his speech and his wife and daughters are weeping, that is the audience’s cue for cheers and tears. Yet 127 Hours—which earned my tears honestly—has almost zero Oscar momentum while The King’s Speech appears unstoppable.

I don’t want anyone to read this blog posting and feel that I think The King’s Speech is completely without merit. Colin Firth is amazing, and it wouldn’t be surprising or undeserved if Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham-Carter all walked out of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with Oscar statuettes. David Seidler’s script is fantastic and is full of memorable lines and funny moments. The exchanges between George VI and Logue are the heart of the picture, and any script that has whole ten minute conversations that enrapture audiences is a good thing for movies. Screenwriters should strive to emulate Seidler’s work on The King’s Speech; in a year with several outstanding original screenplays, Seidler’s may just be the cream of the crop. I also think that this is far and away the most accurate and sensitive depiction of stuttering ever seen on film. It’s the one aspect of the film that is illuminating. I do think though, that The King’s Speech is just another award magnet period drama—albeit one with several outstanding moments—that contains the clichéd qualities so many other Best Picture winners share. Ask yourself this question: in 25 years, will The King’s Speech seem as original or resonate as strongly as the other films nominated for Best Picture? My money is that it’ll be just another costume drama.


The King’s Speech (2010)

Director: Tom Hooper

Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Timothy Spall, Eve Best

Studio: See Saw Films (U.S. distribution by The Weinstein Company)

Total Oscar Nominations: 12 (Best Picture—Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Gareth Unwin; Best Director—Tom Hooper; Best Actor—Colin Firth; Best Supporting Actor—Geoffrey Rush; Best Supporting Actress—Helena Bonham-Carter; Best Original Screenplay—David Seidler; Best Art Direction—Eve Stewart, Judy Farr; Best Cinematography—Danny Cohen; Best Costume Design—Jenny Beavan; Best Editing—Tariq Anwar; Best Score—Alexandre Desplat; Best Sound—Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen, John Midgley)

NEXT BLOG: 127 Hours


  1. i agree--best pic should be out--though i have to say this is probably the best movie i've seen in a long time. i loved it. i agree that colin firth delivered a phenomenal performance. i think the "r" rating was sever and necessary--and i think best actor should be in there for him.

    i'm a sucker and love period films, and ww2 history has always been a weakness of mine.

    however, i will say that the film depicts something that i thought was unique for an american audience. i've been taught to think of and understand the duke of winsor's affair with a progressive divorcee of an american movie star to be a tragic love story with an amazingly happy ending. tabloids featuring european royals always portray this couple as the ultimate winners of love bingo.

    american films, media, and history books fail to portray the abdication of the throne in the interpersonal sense of being irresponsible and ultimately selfish. whether this is true or not, the king's speech takes steps in that direction (which is probably not new for the british audience--but as someone who studied european history in school, i thought the perspective was totally new to me.)

  2. Noell--I thought some of the history was interesting too, and knowing next to nothing about the Royal family, its interesting to hear that the marriage of Edward VIII to Wallis Simpson is seen as a storybook marriage. Nothing in The King's Speech would suggest that. The film portrays Albert and Elizabeth having the ideal relationship.

    I'm always boggled by the ceaseless fascination Americans have with the British Royal Family. For a country founded on anti-imperialist ideals, we certainly love kings and queens and princesses and all that crap.

    Totally 100% agree with you about the "R" rating though. A few "f-words" in a harmless context is apparently worse for children and teenagers to see over graphic violence.

  3. It's rather late 2 weeks after the Oscar to comment, but I still truly feel Black Swan should have won Best Picture.

    As you said, KS did not give me any new angle on human values, any new views of things, or crazily huge inspiration, it's all been done before.

    I'm not saying it's not a good film, it's just that after the movie, it doesn't make much of an imprint in my memory, whereas BS did.

  4. @ Killing

    Thanks for the comment. It never too late to talk about the Oscars. Black Swan would have been better than the King's Speech. and you're right, TKS isn't the kind of film that I feel left the same sort of imprint as some of the other films.