You too can make an Academy Award contender! All you need are these ten ingredients: 1) An inspirational true story, 2) a character with a pronounced disability, 3) Colin Firth in a leading role, 4) Geoffrey Rush in a supporting role, 5) canted camera angles, 6) a score by Alexandre Desplat, 7) Helena Bonham Carter (provided it’s a period piece), 8) a five-minute appearance from Guy Pearce and, most importantly, 9) the support of producers Bob and 10) Harvey Weinstein. Tom Hooper’s The King Speech – which serendipitously features all ten of these elements – is practically the definition of Oscar bait. It’s a veritable trifle of sumptuous delights for members of the Academy to nosh on. The King’s Speech is Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory to the voters’ Augustus Gloop.
But fear not. The King Speech artfully avoids cliché, schmaltz and smugness (the hallmark of too many Oscar nominated films) to be a rather wonderful experience. It’s a lovely, heartfelt film performed impeccably by a charming cast. Firth stars as the stammering Duke of York (Bertie to his friends), who employs Aussie speech therapist Lionel Logue (Rush) to help him overcome his stutter as he prepares to take the throne and become King George VI. Do not be put off by the seemingly stuffy subject matter. It’s true that the list of ingredients for a “sexy” movie (Angelina Jolie, David Caruso, a screenplay by Joe Eszterhas) rarely correspond with those of a “good” movie, but The King’s Speech is still wildly entertaining, even if it is unfortunately lacking in swimming pool-based sex scenes. (That was a weird segue; let’s see if we can’t get back on track.)
History buffs will no doubt already be well versed in the tale of the Duke of York’s ascension in the 1930s. Proud Bertie has grown up in the intimidating shadow of his father King George V (an imposing Michael Gambon) and his older brother David (Guy Pearce). As a result, he’s developed something of a speech impediment. It’s a nasty inconvenience, and emblematic of his inability to consider himself a man with potential. Loving wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) seeks out amateur Australian actor Logue (who received his training in the “enthusiastic” theatre town of Perth) to help her stubborn hubby overcome his obstacle. So begins an unlikely friendship that would inadvertently shape modern history.
Tom Hooper – who helmed a similarly affecting movie about modern kings and unlikely friendships, The Damned United – brings a unique visual approach here. He and cinematographer Danny Cohen position their camera in a number of interesting ways. I’m not sure it really contributes to the meaning behind the film, but it separates it from more “classical” films of this ilk. And gosh, it is indeed pretty. Not to be outshone by tilt shots and astounding period detail are the film’s true stars, Firth and Rush, as the impetuous Bertie and the disarming Lionel respectively. Firth – following on from his unforgettable performance in the otherwise-forgettable A Single Man – fills his Duke of York with such pain and misguided guilt. We too feel the incredible weight of his calling, and his evolution into King George VI is gripping. Rush meanwhile, playing a failed actor with an affinity for articulation, masterfully avoids eating the scenery; he has fun with his character yet still imbues him with heart and soul.
It was revealed in the last decade that King George VI approved Hitler’s governmental “inspection” of unauthorized Jews emigrating out of Germany. This scandal is overlooked by Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler. I understand its exclusion from the film; The King’s Speech would hardly be a feel-good flick if we were asked to champion a man who first turned a blind eye to some of the atrocities being undertaken in Germany before plunging his nation into war. But perhaps if Bertie – already a rich character – had been portrayed warts and all, the audience would have a little bit more to chew on, a little more to process than that which we are given here. Instead of leaving the cinema with a smile – which we do – we could have left conflicted; we could have argued about the film on the drive home, or weeks later. If Hooper were truly interested in giving us a different type of period piece, perhaps he should have considered confronting the audience with some harsh truths, rather than oblique camera angles. Still, this is just the hypothetical difference between a very good film and a brilliant one. Just so there’s no confusion, let me speak plainly: The King’s Speech is a very good film.
The King’s Speech arrives in Australian cinemas December 26, 2010.