Film Review: “The King’s Speech” Reigns

I invite you all to check out a collaborative blog project called “For Your Consideration: 10 Films, 1 Best Picture…“, in which a team of avid cinemaphiles discuss the ten films vying for Best Picture at the 2011 Academy Awards. A case is drawn for each candidate over why it should be rewarded the prestigious title.

My vote goes to The King’s Speech, the British historical drama about the struggles of King George VI, starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham-Carter.

The King’s Speech has been dealt a royal flush of accolades throughout the 2011 awards season, leading this year’s Academy Awards nomination tally with recognition in twelve categories. Directed by Tom Hooper and written by David Seidler, this British historical drama tells the story of King George VI’s struggles with a speech impediment. The film focuses on his relationship with Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, who assists him in overcoming his stutter and restoring his confidence, urging him to become the leader Great Britain needs on the brink of World War II.

What sets The King’s Speech apart from your typical period piece and makes it a standout candidate in this year’s pool of remarkable Best Picture nominees are its brilliant acting performances, its compelling story and the inspired way in which the film combines history with humanity in an engrossing and relatable manner.

The film opens with the future King George VI (then Prince Albert, Duke of York) appearing before a crowd of thousands at Wembley to deliver a speech at the closing ceremony of the 1925 Empire Exhibition. “Bertie” (portrayed by Best Actor nominee Colin Firth) is visibly overcome with nerves over the daunting task and struggles to utter a coherent word as his stammering and stuttering echoes across the stadium. This humiliating incident prompts his devoted wife Elizabeth (Best Supporting Actress nominee Helena Bonham Carter) to enlist the assistance of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Best Supporting Actor nominee Geoffrey Rush) and his unorthodox methods to help Bertie conquer his crippling stutter once and for all. Despite their differences and disagreements, the two men develop a strong bond, and Bertie begins to overcome his stammer in the face of a series of circumstances beyond his control – the death of George V; his brother, Edward VIII’s controversial romance with an American divorcee and his subsequent abdication; Bertie’s impromptu ascension to the throne as George VI and his coronation; and the commencement of World War II.

One of the striking features of The King’s Speech is its first-rate ensemble cast of renowned actors, and it’s the tour de force of these thespian talents that ignites the powerful portrayals of the film’s compelling characters.

Firth delivers one of the most complex performances of his career as the insecure and reluctant sovereign inflicted with a speech impediment, portraying Bertie with such great subtlety and sensitivity that it is impossible not to feel immense sympathy for The Man Who Would Rather Not Be King. The actor convincingly balances Bertie’s regal pretensions and outbursts of rage with an enduring earnestness which makes the character both likeable and relatable. Firth, as Bertie, elicits laughs when he explodes with obscenities during a therapy session in the most humorous scene of the film, and evokes tears when he divulges the sordid details of the damaging childhood traumas he endured which caused his terrible stammer. It is also important to note how deep into character Firth commits himself, even deploying a technique of mouth acting where he mimics the physical nature of Bertie’s affliction by tightening his facial muscles into hopeless spasm, thus rendering him literally speechless. In watching Firth’s portrayal of Bertie, a man reluctant in his abilities to fulfill the role and duties expected of him yet determined to get past the obstacles in his path and undercover his voice, we can see that he truly represents the everyman.

The irresistible central performance from Firth would not have been as effective if it weren’t for the terrific supporting roles of Rush and Bonham Carter, both of whom generate incredible on-screen dynamics with Firth.

Rush offers a refreshing performance as the clever, charming and eccentric speech therapist who comes to the future King’s aid. With sly humour and deep insights, Lionel keeps his initially uptight and agitated client off-balanced, yet on equal footing with him (even referring to the monarch by his nickname of Bertie) while attempting to cure a problem while only treating its visible symptoms. Throughout their sessions, an interesting rapport between the two men of disparate backgrounds emerges. The inspiring brotherhood developed between Lionel and Bertie reaches a paramount state when, on the eve of Bertie’s impending coronation, Lionel urges the soon-to-be monarch to directly confront his fears in order to reach his destiny. Rush clearly succeeds in portraying Lionel as a trusted advisor and lifelong confidante to the King of England.

As yet another longstanding support system for Bertie, Bonham Carter is the picture of kindness, virtue and dedication as the Duke’s wife, Elizabeth, Duchess of York. The role of Elizabeth is especially crucial in contributing much-needed moral guidance and persistent encouragement for Bertie during these moments of great challenge. The couple’s genuine affection for one another shows a believable vulnerability and admirable stoicism, and their touching interaction with their young daughters Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth II) and Princess Margaret also demonstrates the potential of the royal family. Rounding out the court of talents are Michael Gambon as the ailing King George V, Claire Bloom as Queen Mary, Guy Pearce as Edward VIII, and Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill.

The King’s Speech succeeds in its quest to humanize a royal figure and directly appeal to the viewer’s pathos, creating a deep connection between the audience and the trials of King George VI. He isn’t portrayed as simply a monarch; he’s a real person going through real issues. One can easily identify with Bertie’s struggles to overcome his stammer and low self-esteem, and can also desire Lionel as a trusted comrade and admire Elizabeth’s strength as a supportive wife and spirited woman.

Above all, The King’s Speech is deserving of these grand accolades for the powerful, central message the film delivers, in that the personal challenge faced by Bertie – of persevering through life’s unexpected curveballs – is universal. You cannot help but feel moved as you watch the King conquer his fears and insecurities, applaud as he overcomes adversity with tremendous confidence and determination, and imagine the possibility of using your own voice to not only motivate those around you, but to inspire belief within yourself.

The King’s Speech has been nominated for Best Actor (Colin Firth), Best Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush), Best Supporting Actress (Helena Bonham Carter), Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Costume Design, Best Director (Tom Hooper), Best Editing, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture of 2010.

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