Open All Heirs
There are a number of reasons why people might instinctively react against Tom Hooper's film The King's Speech. Firstly, it's a costume drama, which the British film industry churns out in great numbers and which sometimes all seem to blur into one as a result. Secondly, it takes as its subject matter the British Royal Family (the title may give this away), a divisive topic in some quarters. And thirdly, it's a product of the now-abolished UK Film Council, a body whose past productions I have described using such words as 'bloody depressing', 'makes you want to gouge your own eyes out' and 'evidence of the UKFC's unerring instinct for investing millions of pounds in complete crap'. So, not unqualified praise, there.
However, let all memories of Sex Lives of the Potato Men be banished (if only it were so easy…). You would be unwise to let such prejudices turn you against what will probably turn out to be one of the films of the year. This film transports us back to a pivotal moment in time, when the destiny of the world hinged on a clash between two countries, one ruled by a man famed for his ferocious oratorical magnetism, the other by a man barely capable of speaking a word in public. There have been many films made about the former, Adolf Hitler, but to my knowledge this is the first to focus on the latter, King George VI of Britain.
George VI never wanted to be king and it's perhaps the misfortune of his posterity that he was surrounded by so many legendary and larger-than-life people, reducing him to a somewhat vague and colourless figure in the popular imagination. This film should go some way to rectify that situation, even if the film takes a few understandable liberties with historical fact.
Colin Firth plays the future King, who is a martyr to his stammer - a serious problem for a man required to make so many public speeches. As his father ails and his duties increase, his wife (Helena Bonham-Carter) arranges for him to be treated by the somewhat informal speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). But the greatest crisis in the history of the British crown is approaching, with the dissolute heir apparent more interested in his own happiness than his duty, and war with Germany rapidly becoming inevitable. Does the stammering younger brother have the makings of a King inside him?
Not many car chases in this one, then, and I needn't have bothered taking my 3D glasses with me, either. Nevertheless this is an excellent movie, managing to find a genuinely new angle on the abdication crisis. It's more than simply a slab of dramatised history, however, informative though it is, and while it's sympathetic to the King as a man it's not some Royalist tract either. It stands up perfectly well as a story on its own terms - a very human portrait of a man desperately trying to do his duty, struggling towards a very unlikely friendship with someone who's his complete opposite.
Firth gives a technically brilliant performance as the afflicted King, but goes beyond this to make him a believable person as well - unintentionally or not, he gives George some of the mannerisms of his eldest grandson, which helps to sell the character. Geoffrey Rush is just as good as the therapist, giving one of the most restrained performances I've seen from him (then again I've not seen him do much outside of Pirates of the Caribbean). Bonham-Carter, stuck with the task of embodying someone extraordinarily well-known but whose personality remained unknown throughout her lifetime, is also very strong, hitting a very plausible note of brisk cheeriness masking a core of pure steel.
Oh, let's not muck about. Everyone in this movie is good: Timothy Spall plays Churchill in the accepted style (gruff old warrior awaiting his country's call), Guy Pearce plays Edward VIII in accordance with the modern view of him as a selfish hedonist and possible Nazi-sympathiser, Michael Gambon has a cameo as George V, and the little girl from Outnumbered pops up, rather startlingly, as Princess Margaret. Derek Jacobi, purveyor himself of surely the greatest speech-impedimented performance in modern history, plays the Archbishop of Canterbury, while Her Royal Maj herself is portrayed by Freya Wilson (who isn't given very many lines).
I was interested to see Jennifer Ehle some way down the cast list as Logue's wife - given she and Firth hit the big time off the back of the same TV show, it's interesting that he's become a bona fide movie star while she appears to have done most of her work on stage over the last ten years. Hmm.
Some commentators have been a little surprised that this film has received only a 12A certificate, given there's an extended sequence where Firth doesn't do much more than repeatedly shout ****, ****, ****, and ***** (not to mention ******* and ******). (He doesn't use s*mpr*n*, you'll be relieved to hear.) Well, in context it comes across as sweet rather than offensive and drew gentle laughter at the viewing I attended. I must confess to being astonished that this whole area is still so contentious - this is possibly a discussion for another venue, of course.
Well, if you are a dyed-in-the-wool republican this film isn't going to change your mind about that - though it may increase your sympathy for the inmates of royalty somewhat. But this is a film without a real political message, at least not one that I could discern. It's a story about people, not royals and commoners, and a very well made one. Funnily enough, the Queen's Speech every Christmas lasts ten minutes and is usually utterly tedious - while The King's Speech lasts for two hours and is completely enthralling throughout. Highly recommended.