x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The King's Speech makes a big show at the BIFAs

The King's Speech has been an Oscar favourite ever since it played to such acclaim at the Toronto Festival in September, where it won the festival's top prize.

Director Tom Hooper.
Director Tom Hooper.

The King's Speech has been an Oscar favourite ever since it played to such acclaim at the Toronto Festival in September, where it won the festival's top prize. It has all the ingredients that usually play so well to the American Academy; a royal story line, a strong British cast and a principal character with a disability, in this case a speech disorder.

The race for the Best Picture Oscar looks increasingly likely to be a straight run-off between Tom Hooper's film and David Fincher's The Social Network.

Last week at the British Independent Film Awards, The King's Speech was the night's big winner, picking up a clutch of awards, including Best Film, Best Actor for Colin Firth who plays King George VI, Best Supporting Actor Geoffrey Rush for his turn as a speech therapist who helps the monarch get over his stammer, and Best Supporting Actress went to Helena Bonham Carter as his wife Elizabeth (mother of the present queen).

The big surprise was that Hooper didn't pick up the Best Director nod. It seemed a tad unfair for the 38-year-old, who directed the Brian Clough film The Damned United, that he was beaten to that prize by Gareth Edwards, who made the low-budget hit Monsters. Hooper's other credits include the well-received British drama Longford about the controversial peer. Hooper has made a habit of taking historical figures and making superb fictions from these characters' lives.

Speaking at the BIFAs, Hooper was not too stressed about missing out on Best Director, saying: "To win five awards, to get the Best Film Award is absolutely thrilling and for all my cast to win, for Geoffrey, Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter and for the writer, it's thrilling for us all. And also there's something very emotional about being in London where I grew up, where I've made films since I was 13 years old and to win with a London film, that we filmed here, that's very exciting for me as well."

Previously, Hooper has had to use East European countries to double as London while filming, as a cost-cutting measure, but The King's Speech has some remarkable production design both on the interiors and exteriors.

The story is a fascinating one as well, and Hooper jumped at the chance to direct the movie: "It's just such an extraordinary story. OK, you've got the story of a guy who's a stammerer but this stammerer happens to be forced to become king of England right at the moment when radio has taken off as a mass medium and the Second World War's approaching, and he's saved by a maverick Australian speech therapist who's a failed Shakespearean actor and entirely self-taught, not even a doctor. I mean, you couldn't make it up. If you made it up, people would dismiss it as ridiculous."

Yet the magic of the film is simply because there is not a single moment when the story seems preposterous. Hooper commands the camera and his actors well. The story starts with the king having to make a speech at Wembley Stadium and incorporates the Edward-and-Mrs-Simpson scandal in an effective manner. Guy Pearce, who is seven years younger than Firth, does a great job of playing his older fun-loving brother, whose abdication landed George in the hot seat.

The best scenes, though, are those between Firth and Rush. The two actors are at the top of their games and have a dynamism that makes their speech-therapy lessons enthralling, as Rush gives Firth a range of voice exercises. It's an unusual relationship, but the type of friendship that plays beautifully on screen when done well. It's why the film is destined to be an awards favourite, but Hooper is not ready to make any predictions.

"You'd go mad if you try and analyse all that," he said. "So I try to stay away from all that. What I do know is that what Colin did was nothing short of extraordinary. I was there with him intimately every day and the extent to which he inhabited this part and disappeared into this character was simply amazing, particularly given that he likes to satirise the Method and Method actors. And for him, I think he did cross the line, he actually became quite infected by the stammer and it was a very physical performance. He got so caught up in it that he actually had numbness in his left arm by the time the shoot ended."