Friday, 22 October 2010


The buzz around The King's Speech, which started when it won the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival, was confirmed last night at the London Film Festival's American Express gala showing at the Odeon Leicester Square. With an compelling performance by Colin Firth as 'Bertie', King George VI, at its heart, this is a film concerned not only with courage and personal triumph, but one which celebrates old-fashioned virtues of duty and loyalty. In setting up a parallel between the courage required to overcome his stammer, and that required to assume his role as King when his brother proves incapable, and then to lead his country into war, screenwriter David Seidler has crafted a story which strikes many of the same chords as Chariots of Fire did thirty years ago, with a similar degree of unlikeliness given the current tenor of our times. Perhaps that is why it seems so appealing.

In fact, Seidler's script began life as a play, and it really plays out as a series of exceptional two-handers, in which director Tom Hooper allows the actors to flourish. Firth's is a bravura physical performance, twisting himself around his speech impediment, but it draws on the kind of inward, repressed characters he has played before, in say The Single Man or Where The Truth Lies, and gradually reveals his character's immense inner resources. Helena Bonham Carter, as Queen Elizabeth segues perfectly from testing her formality with Geoffrey Rush as the lugubrious Lionel Logue, the speech therapist who eventually helps Bertie overcome his stammer, and revealing the person beneath that formality with Firth. Firth and Logue's scenes are like a royal odd couple, battling at its finest, with Rush's assertive, but sometimes naive, colonial commoner set off against Firth's withdrawn and lonely aristocrat. Logue's consulting rooms are like a small theatrical set; he is a failed amateur actor, and it's as if he's luring the Duke of York into his own amateur production. Other two-handers will follow, most effectively Bertie with his father, George V (Michael Gambon) and his brother David (the abidicator, Edward VIII) played brilliantly by Guy Pearce full of weakness covered with a thin veneer of surface charm. Even when the set-pieces open up, Hooper often isolates the point of impact into a two-shot, again most notably when Claire Bloom is incapable to react to her son David's tearful break-down on his father's death making him king.

By opening up the play in such a careful way, Hooper also delivers scenes which have the power of soliloquy--by leaving Firth in half the frame as he recalls his brother Johnny, dead at 13, he suggests Bertie's loneliness, which arises literally from the unfilled space familial affection should have provided. It makes the scenes with his own daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret more telling. Hooper comes back to this half-frame often; Bonham-Carter, in another perfectly-judged performance, enters it to provide that love; Logue pops through it like an uncontrollable primitive force. Seidler is also very good on issues of class--something where Logue himself (and his wife, well played by Jennifer Ehle) serves as a commoner constrast to Mrs Simpson (played by Eve Best with remarkable physical similarity, but perhaps, as with Spall's Churchill, too strong a single note). It's no surprise the film gathered such an exceptional cast, since Seidler's script allows so many of them moments of real emotional impact, and because Hooper's careful direction allows them to shine in those moments.

Where the film is perhaps weakest is in the broader historical sense, where it really does need to open out. The same was true of Hooper's John Adams, at its best in the scenes where Paul Giamatti's Adams either negotiates one on one or shares the screen with Laura Linney's Abigail. Here, it results in a lessening of the tension of the two biggest external dramas, the abdication and the coming of World War II. We know the outcome of both, and they might have detracted from the focus on Bertie and Lionel, but somehow the intertwining of personal and political might have had more hefor. It is most obvious in Timothy Spall's caricature of Churchill; in a film where few of the actors try to become superficially the characters they play, yet catch their essences perfectly, Spall's Churchill, pleasant enough and making the point he's needed to make, seems out of place even compared with Anthony Andrews' restrained Baldwin (recalling that Derek Jacobi, here the Archbishop of Canterbury played Baldwin opposite Albert Finney's bravura Churchill in The Gathering Storm).

But the focus is Bertie's battle. Not only with his stammer, but to open himself up, to accept a friend, to overcome the psychological trauma that Logue, like a modern psycho-therapist, gets him to reveal. Seidler was a stammerer as a boy, and King George was an inspiration to him; having learned this, it's easy to see that inspiration still reflected on the screen. This may be why the film has gone down well in North America, the sight of a royal reaching his inner 'we' is too good to be true. It's also very funny, which may help it in this country too: the scenes of Bertie using curse-words to help overcome his disability originally saw the film rated '15' here, but it has now been opened for 12 year olds and parental guidance, lest their children absorb some history as well as vocabulary. It's suitable for them, it's entertaining for anyone, it's thought-provoking and uplifting, and it's a masterclass in acting. It is the kind of film that may leave women laughing as well as men crying, and Toronto is right, it certainly will be contending for Oscars.

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