Words On Film: The King's Speech

By far the most conventional film I have seen in the theater this year, The King's Speech, is also one of the most directly heartfelt. As a historical drama; given that any of us with access to Wikipedia or some background knowledge on the principle subjects, we already know where the plot will go, so it's not a film of twists and turns or any kind of suspense. Instead, The King's Speech remains compelling specifically on the basis of its actors, the human relationships that develop, and the sweet and humorous moments that maintain the plot. Leaving the film, I wasn't as agitated and altered as I was following Black Swan, nor as psyched and charmed as after True Grit. This time the film was more like a fine scotch. Full and enjoyable all the way through, with a pleasant sort of mellowing aftertaste. I would not place The King's Speech above number three in my top five of this year, but I would defend its beauty and quality to the death. The casting is spectacular throughout and the writing is exceptional. And the themes and implications about royalty and human bonding were phenomenal.

So, really, I'm going to spoil this film, but then, there's that pesky issue of spoiling history (which is impossible) and the major note, that it's not the story, so much as the people that matter in this case. The King's Speech covers the early life and early reign of King George VI, played by Colin Firth (exceptionally), who suffered a terrible stammer throughout his life. George VI is unable to speak publicly, first as the Duke of York, and then as King, in a time when wireless radio was all the rage. Needless to say, this complicated things for him. He and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) seek assistance with a speech therapist played by Geoffrey Rush. Wackiness ensues. And, as the title so subtly suggests, the King must give a Speech... Luckily, that title is mentioned in dialogue only once, so there's no risk of a drinking game developing (unless of course one wants to drink whenever Mozart is playing, but that could make for a dangerously short night).

The costuming, set design and setting (from colors to tones to feeling) all places the audience very comfortably in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. The world of post-WWI-pre-WWII England is flawless. But the true beauty lies in the way that almost all of a film centered around monarchs takes place in meager, common places. The King's Speech is not about deifying or glorifying royalty. It's really about people, who when all the regalia is stripped, are just like everyone else. Monarchs are not special. They are born into the idea of special, but they take their responsibilities reluctantly, and savor the small bits of privacy they hold, as briefly as they hold them. The story hinges on what radio changed about the English monarchy, as I noted above, but specifically that royals went from merely looking the part, to have to SPEAK the part to their people. The king and queen remained figureheads, but with the burden of the people's dreams and hopes upon their newly accessible backs. George VI's brother, Edward VIII (briefly) and then the Duke of Windsor, is the charismatic one, and takes the throne upon George V's death. But Edward chooses Love over power, stepping down to be with a woman (the twice divorced Wallis Simpson) who the Church and his people would not approve him marrying. This leaves George VI the throne, which he does not want. Royalty in The King's Speech is a remarkable curse.

These flawed people, these flawed people who were ordained by God to be the leaders of England, appear more as reluctant players in the monarchical game than willing combatants. But there's more heart. George VI's relationship with Lionel Logue and the former's quest to get rid of his stammer. The stammer is more of a set piece, but also an important character in its own right. Sure, it acts as the film's antagonist, but it's also a catalyst to a friendship that transcends birthright. In Logue, George VI finds a true friend, and opens up to someone, a commoner, more than he appears to have with anyone previously in his life. That's the second layer. Royals are just like commoners, with flashy responsibilities, but friendship, true connection, knows nothing of the dressings we place on our societies. And that means that parts of The King's Speech feel like a British buddy comedy, which is by no means derisive.

With all those themes and ideas, the underlying note of burden and equality, and the issue of friendship, the film still could have looked beautiful and sucked. It does not suck because Colin Firth is amazing, which is a news flash, I know. Geoffrey Rush is spectacular as well. Not to mention Guy Pearce, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall (as Churchill), and Michael "Dumbledore 2: The Revenge" Gambon. The actors are the main reason to see this film, especially if history does not delight you. You won't find yourself wondering what's going on, what's going to happen next, or waiting for a scene of sex or violence. The King's Speech is a study of people, people represented beautifully by incredible actors. It's the type of film that could have easily been a stage performance instead, and in either case it succeeds remarkably.

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