I was chatting with a friend of mine yesterday before heading out to the movies. Our conversation partly went like this:
Me: I'm going to see The King's Speech today.
Friend: That looks good.
Me: It looks like Oscar bait to me.
Let's get this out of the way: The King's Speech (2010, directed by Tom Hooper) is totally Oscar bait. It's the kind of movie the members of the Academy LOVE. High-minded, pedigreed, slightly irreverent, historical, "significant." It's all of these things. It's also middlebrow, cinematically conservative, and uncontroversial. Hell, it features a lead character dealing with a disability. If that's not Oscar bait, nothing is. If I had to guess, it'll take six of the twelve Oscars for which it's nominated, including Best Picture. But I don't really care. Oscar has never been a benchmark of excellence. Just ask Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick.
In spite of all of this, The King's Speech is a pretty good movie. As I say, it's totally middlebrow, but that doesn't mean it's bad. In fact, it's fun to watch. John Ford once said that the most interesting thing in the world was the human face, and that's something that this movie understands implicitly. It helps that it has a sterling cast of British (and Australian) worthies and it spends its running time looking them in the eye. It's effective.
The story here finds Albert, the Duke of York, dealing with a debilitating stammer. Given that he's second in line to the English throne, and given that his brother, Edward VIII is pissing away his monarchy in an affair with an American divorcee, it's fair to assume that he's going to have to do some public speaking, and lots of it. His wife brings him a succession of speech therapists, none of whom have much success, though part of this stems from Bertie's own rage at his impediment. He's an angry man. Eventually, though, the royal couple find a speech therapist with unconventional methods who is completely unimpressed by their royal pedigree. This is Lionel Logue, who unexpectedly succeeds where the others have failed. Bertie eventually ascends the throne when his brother abdicates, a terrifying state of affairs given the rise of Nazi Germany and the near certainty of war. On the occasion of the outbreak of WWII, Bertie, now King George VI, is called upon to deliver the most important speech of his life.
For all the pith and moment of this film's setting, it's surprisingly intimate. The King's Speech is mostly a chamber drama. The most important action in the film takes place in Logue's dingy studio, which is almost a parody of the lush interiors one usually sees in movies about British royalty. It's funny the things you notice about films when you see a lot of them. One of the things that I latched onto while watching this was the preponderance of short lenses used to film it. These slightly distort the frame, bringing the contours of the actors faces forward in space when filmed in close-up, and are occasionally used to indicate Bertie's discomfort with the world in which he lives. It's an interesting choice, given that if one does this badly, it can lend a film an element of grotesquerie. In this case, the film is already visually dreary, designed as it is in grays and browns. I presume that this is deliberately contrived to place the emphasis on the actors rather than on the production. The actors are uniformly fine, so this wasn't strictly necessary. Still, it works, and it never actually makes any of its characters grotesque.
Colin Firth gets the plum Oscar bait role here as Bertie, and it's hard to fault his performance. The edge of rage just under his scenes is well considered, and on the whole, he'll deserve the awards he receives. But it's his co-stars that really jumped off the screen for me. Helena Bonham Carter plays Bertie's wife, Elizabeth, with a sly twinkle in her eye. Elizabeth enjoys tweaking the office she holds and the expectations that go with it. Carter gets this just right. Geoffrey Rush plays Logue, who is an eternal optimist. It's fun seeing him exercise his own delusions as an actor, while also showing him excel at his true calling. Rush can be a barnstormer if he wants, but he keeps this impulse under wraps here. The scenes between Firth and Rush are the core of the movie, and it shows just how engrossing watching two people just talking to each other can be.
This film gets points, too, for creative use of the seven dirty words you can't say on television--just in case the audience might think it was too uptight to watch. The awards will certainly obscure the charm of all this, which is too bad, really. This doesn't deserve the Best Picture Oscar, really, in the same way that cancer patients don't deserve their cancers. Alas.