Perhaps wary of stick-waving, royalist-poking republicans everywhere, The King’s Speech is almost a little desperate to win over any audience that comes across it. You WILL get behind the unproven hero, and whatever your allegiance, lords knows you WILL be rooting for him come the final act. In the simplest terms the film is Rocky recast in a royal mould, with all the pent-up British decorum that might suggest. It’s thoroughly enjoyable for it too.
The underdog is the unassuming Albert, Prince of York (Colin Firth), and the film is his path to succeeding the Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) and becoming the Reluctant King George VI. His struggle is with himself, battling a debilitating stutter which neuters him in the one demand of a royal, that of the public speaker. He was never meant to be a contender, swiftly consigned to the sidelines from birth, the knock-kneed, tongue-tied younger brother had steeled himself for a life outside the spotlight. Not that occasion didn’t demand of him to speak publicly, and the opening scene of the film sees Albert failing to address both an attendant Wembley stadium, and a nation of listeners on the wireless. Ushered in by the King’s finest English, a waiting nation is left hanging in silence, Albert humiliated, unable to even trip over a single word.
Having given up on the prospect of curing his affliction, ‘Bertie’s’ patient and supportive wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter) corrals him into trying one last Doctor, whose ‘unorthodox’ approach had a good record of success. Descending into the bowels of Harvey street they meet the gauche Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) who’s at no pains for airs and graces around the royals.
The initial session starts with an awkward bickering between a jovial therapist and prickily prince, the question of ‘how -do- I address you?’ opening up the formal and psychological minefield that the two of them spend the rest of the film trying to traverse. It’s not a million miles away from the therapy couch sessions of the equally guarded and overblown Tony Soprano; both subjects in desperate need of therapy, but outwardly set against the idea at every turn. The film skirts past the threat of overt psychoanalysis, as Bertie insists it’s a mere ‘physical affliction’ and that it should be treated as such. The coach (and the audience) obviously knows better, but our champ has to get in the comfort zone if he’s going to
win the bout conquer his condition.
Of course, with the unwitting regent-to-be there’s the added tension of how Logue can interact with him on even the simplest of physical planes. The blocking of scenes is something you shouldn’t be too conscious of when watching a film, but the slow unstiffening of protocol, the opening of personal space is a nicely subtle way in which the drama plays out. As the Rocky has to learn to raise his guard (and slip the jab) so Bertie has to learn to drop his.
There’s initial doubt, the sudden epiphany, a training montage, an early victory, the inevitable rejection and push for independence, and the desperate and grovelling return to the mentor. Where the kernel of the story is drawn from historical details, the grand narrative arc is straight out of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and there’s something shamelessly enjoyable in seeing an underdog overcoming adversity and winning through in the end.
Having become the king, and following the nation into war Edward VI manages to lurch his way through a rousing speech to an uncertain nation. For all the grandstanding, the new found pomp carefully undermined with a human touch, the film goes all out to convince you Edward alone practically won the war before it had really begun. And the most embittered republicans aside, it’s very easy to get swept in the swoon of it, and no shame for that.
Many a voice online has been keen to echo this film as ‘one of those Sunday afternoon’ films. A DVD for the parents for Christmas. A safe bet. Could have been made for TV.
But that’s to do the film a disservice, and for all the film’s period trappings and royalist clappings, the heavyweight cast all pitch above average in trying to win you over and get you behind Team Bertie. The film is shot with a slight flair, the struggle (internal and external) played out more in personal space and in strangely conflicting shot-reverse-shot sequences. It’s a treat in more ways that one, and worthy of more than just your distracted ITV-matinee attention.
Four out of Five
The King’s Speech is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 7th of January 2011.