x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The King's Speech

Despite the occasional flaw, The King's Speech, starring Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter, is a film of unusually high accomplishment

Colin Firth as King George VI and Helena Bonham Carter as his wife Queen Elizabeth in the already award-winning The King’s Speech.
Colin Firth as King George VI and Helena Bonham Carter as his wife Queen Elizabeth in the already award-winning The King’s Speech.

The King's Speech
Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter
****

Already a box-office phenomenon in the UK and now a 12-time Oscar nominee, The King's Speech arrives so laden with plaudits and panegyrics that it's sometimes hard to see the movie for the phenomenon.

Make no mistake, it is peerless entertainment, utterly impeccable in production and performance. But this mid-1930s-set portrait of the troubled King George VI (Firth) and how he managed to subdue his stammer with the aid of an Australian speech therapist called Lionel Logue (Rush) is certainly multi-layered. A second viewing, in fact, can be far more rewarding than the initial encounter. For in the latter case, what we meet, and what will inevitably scoop Oscars, is a prestige British period movie with a feel-good heart.

Here we are shown the first antagonistic meeting between the king - then the Duke of York - and Logue, as organised by the duke's doting wife Elizabeth (Bonham Carter). We soon witness the thawing of hostility between the two men, the softening of the irascible duke, and then eventually, after his coronation, the indelible bonding of the pair over the delivery of the title's Call to Arms speech in December 1939.

In this, of course, Firth and Rush make a fascinating double-act, with the former as dangerously brittle and explosive as the latter is soft and wisely malleable. Their scenes together, more fully blown psychotherapy than anything else, are as compelling as anything in previous therapy classics such as Ordinary People, Good Will Hunting or television's In Treatment. And it's these performances, more than the deft direction of Tom Hooper, or the production design of Eve Stewart (Logue's treatment room is a gorgeous garret of flaking brown walls and peeling green paper), that will be recognised during awards season (Firth already has a Golden Globe to his name, with a Bafta sure to follow).

However, there's more to The King's Speech than meets the eye. It's a complex movie of ideas made by a man, Hooper, who boasts of having a relaxed Australian mother and a once emotionally repressed English father. It is, says Hooper, his "most personal project to date", (he also directed The Damned United), and is fuelled by his desire to tackle both sides of his heritage. Thus this royal family are emotionally lacking (their paterfamilias, King George V, played by Michael Gambon, is a merciless bully), and burdened by their own stiff-upper-Englishness until Logue arrives. Logue saves the king from his own Englishness by injecting him with a dose of Australian bonhomie - he calls the king "Bertie", he repeatedly asks direct personal questions, and executes all manner of improprieties under the professional banner: "My house, my rules!" Here, at every turn, even as the film appears to be celebrating the British monarchy, it is also testing its limits.

And there are occasional flaws here too. Some of the lines are declarative and thudding, such as departing Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin's ominous warning "I'm very much afraid that your greatest test has yet to come", while some performances, such as Timothy Spall's "panto"-worthy Winston Churchill, are simply way off the mark. But generally, and even when disentangled from the phenomenon it's become, this is a film of unusually high accomplishment.

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