Monday, 10 January 2011

The King's Speech

When King George VI, formerly Albert, Duke of York, finally found his voice after a battle with a horrendous stammer, it proved one of the most miraculous moments in British constitutional history. Finally, the monarch was able to deploy the full power of the written word and unite his people over the wireless during the immensely turbulent period leading up to World War II. And now Tom Hooper's tremendous new film, The King's Speech, finds an eloquent cinematic voice of its own, emerging from the stumbling, half-baked Christmas season as one of the most rewarding and enjoyable costume dramas in recent years.

It arrives showered in acclaim and Golden Globe nominations, and is hotly tipped to do well at the BAFTAs and Oscars. Such hype can be a dangerous thing, as can the dreaded 'Heritage Cinema' tag applied to many films of this ilk. As Eddie Izzard observed, we half expect it to be populated with British actors constantly opening doors in each others faces and coming all aflutter. Well, there are British actors, and there are many scenes of said actors walking in and out of rooms. It also owes a debt to The Queen, the drama that made cinematic portrayals of British monarchs all the more fashionable. But it is staid and mannered? Is it heck. Does it exceed the hype? Yes, it does.

In fact, this is cinema dripping with passion and compassion, warmth and humour. It's a bracing eye-opener to a vital period in British history and also, unexpectedly, a heartfelt buddy movie. Colin Firth meanwhile continues to build on the heartbreaking work seen in last year's A Single Man, and seems to have cornered the market in low-key British melancholia. The difference is, here he is burdened with greater expectation. Much as the King himself was required to shoulder incredible pressure, Firth not only has to embody the monarch's regal principles but also has to humanise him through the presence of the dreaded stammer.

The actor pulls it off magnificently, fully conveying the sense of terror that arises from the conflict between public speaking and bodily rebellion. Accompanied by Alexandre Desplat's lovely score, one which gives an air of florid intimacy, the film opens on Albert's 1925 Empire Exhibition address at Wembley Stadium. Freezing in his tracks before the microphone and a rapt audience, the Duke is crippled by mechanics he can't control. Consequently, his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, understated and all the better for it) consults flamboyant, unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to see if he can cure her husband's problem.

'What is he, an indentured servant?' Logue enquires, initially unaware that he is being consulted by a member of the Royal Family (under a different name). Such disarming moments are frequent in the film, and work brilliantly in generating a warm atmosphere that shatter any preconceived notions of stuffy history. Stuffy is one thing the film certainly isn't; it relishes the sense of period and, bar some discrepancies, appears to represent it accurately. And when the mighty Rush begins to spar with Firth, it never looks back, right from the moment he insists on approaching the future king on an even keel and calling him 'Bertie'.

Both actors forge a delightful chemistry that never threatens to become overbearing because the film ensures the personal growth of the two characters is but one part of the bigger picture. Both Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler have a firm hand on the multifaceted narrative, pitting personal anguish against public tension. As Logue pioneers increasingly eccentric ways for Albert to overcome his impediment (everything from rolling on the floor to rib-tickling bouts of swearing), the political intrigue elsewhere gathers apace, and the film builds enormous tension in spite of the fact that its conclusion is a foregone one, subservient to the path of history.

Indeed as Albert's brother Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) abdicates in favour of marrying American divorcee Wallace Simpson, the film changes from intimate comedy drama largely set in the confines of Logue's shabby office (one of the film's pleasures is the way it frames royalty against unflattering environments) to broader constitutional thriller, Albert reluctantly forced to take up the mantle of king. Yet it never loses that vital sense of humour and pathos. Firth, Rush and Bonham Carter all continue to wear the immense burden of history lightly and professionally, putting a vivid human face on the class divide in pre-Blitz Britain.

Throughout, Danny Cohen's careful framing, Eve Stuart's impeccable art direction and Jenny Beavan's lush costumes are all critical to Hooper's vision. In spite of the odd inaccuracy, the film's emotional honesty and sense of integrity is never in doubt. All aspects of the production fuse together seamlessly to form a film which doesn't just inhabit the period but which also brings the period thrillingly to life, nowhere more so than in that agonising final showdown between the monarch and the mic. That we care is one thing; that we're practically on the edge of our seats is something else entirely.

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