Even a little amount of research into the London Blitz will give just about any American a deeper amount of respect for the so-called stiff upper lip of the British. Ten years after the September 11 attacks, it’s worth noting that London suffered approximately seven such attacks over the course of nine months in 1940 and 1941. That’s just the deaths; there’s also the damage to some of England’s most cherished landmarks to consider, as well as the general state of terror over that time. And once you’ve grasped the degree to which London was under assault, think about this: the deaths and damage in London were only half of what all England suffered during that time.
So, honestly, I’m surprised that there haven’t been more Best Picture winners like 2010’s The King’s Speech, set in London just prior to the Blitz. The British stoicism in the face of such terror is the stuff award-winning movies are made of.
The film opens with Prince Albert, the Duke of York (Best Actor winner Colin Firth) delivering a disastrous speech at a full Wembley Stadium in 1925. Albert’s severe stutter leaves him in the contempt of all England, save wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and two daughters. Elizabeth hires a speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) to help “Bertie,” who cannot hide his problem as the world moves deeper into the radio age. By the end of the film Bertie has become King George VI and must comfort his empire via radio in the face of Hitler’s aggression.
The King’s Speech is one of the most agreeable dramas I’ve ever seen. It’s not going to challenge your worldview at any point, and it doesn’t make any assertions that you’re going to disagree with. Kings have responsibilities, stuttering can be overcome, and Hitler should have been confronted: nothing at all shocking there. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that; lots of great films are very agreeable, that’s why they’re great. However, it does put a large amount of pressure on the performers to sell the tension, because the subject matter doesn’t provide too much tension otherwise (after all, we know that Hitler will be defeated).
Fortunately for the movie, Firth delivers in spades. He does something I’ve never seen before, underplaying the actual act of stuttering, but almost overplaying Bertie’s frustration and humiliation as a result. One of the central conflicts of the relationship between Bertie and his therapist is that they must be as equals in order for the therapy to work, and yet he knows royalty are by definition not equal to commoners, and yet Bertie’s self-doubt makes him unconsciously believe that he is inferior to his subjects. Bertie is basically fighting a three-way war with himself, where he must sometimes assert dominion over people and be submissive to them in the same conversation, and Firth performs it perfectly. He deserved every ounce of that Oscar.
The supporting cast is good, in that you’re never going to complain about the acting, but I didn’t always like the characters that they are playing. Bertie’s predecessor King Edward (Guy Pearce), who abdicated in order to marry his American girlfriend, borders on comical villainy. Rush’s character is sort of a shaman, and Carter is playing the proverbial great woman that stands behind every good man. Neither character changes or wavers; I suppose that’s a good thing for showing us where Bertie got his perseverance from, but in the real world almost everyone has doubts from time to time. In the hands of even average actors, I suspect these characters would come off as one-dimensional.
The hidden star of the film might actually be the dialogue. At every moment where I might think the movie was too serious, it delivers some typically Britsh droll humor. A number of the scenes between Rush and Firth end with a line that sort of puts an exclamation point on the scene, a writerly trick that I often get tired of, but in this film the lines are too perfect not to admire. This film constantly flirts with taking a super-serious, Oscar-bait sort of outlook; half of the time it was Firth’s performance that pulled me back in, and half of the time it was a perfectly crafted piece of dialogue. I was not surprised that the film won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay also.
The King’s Speech was not the best 2010 film that I saw; I would have chosen Winter’s Bone, which is a fundamentally more challenging film. But there is something to be said for a strong royal melodrama, performed perfectly by its lead and ably supported. It’s a sort of throwback to the old Hollywood, the sort of movie they don’t make anymore, and for no real reason. It makes you feel good after watching it, without feeling that your emotions were manipulated, and that’s a thing all movies should aspire to.
Reviewed by Mark Young