This is going to be a difficult one for me. I remember hearing all of the buzz surrounding The King’s Speech when it came out, and how wonderful a movie it was and how it was going to clean up come Oscar night. Then I saw it for myself, and while I did enjoy it, I didn’t think it was as special a film as people made it out to be. I hadn’t seen it since, and my hope was that in watching it again, I would see the specialness that everyone else apparently saw in it. Well, while I did see more layers to it than I had in my previous viewing, it didn’t blow me away in the manner that a Best Picture winner should. There was one film that came out in 2010 that did blow me away in that manner, which I will get to at the end.
Now please don’t get me wrong. The King’s Speech is an exceptional film about overcoming adversity and locking up the demons of your past in the cages of your new found strength. It is a powerful film with extraordinary performances by Colin Firth (winner for Best Actor), Geoffrey Rush (nominated for Best Supporting Actor) and Helena Bonham Carter (nominated for Best Supporting Actress), as well as many of the other supporting roles. Coming off of a small, yet important role in The Hurt Locker, Guy Pierce (joining Russell Crowe, Walter Pidgeon and Clark Gable as actors appearing in back-to-back Best Picture winners) gave a powerful performance as King Edward VIII, the man who would abdicate the throne for the love of a twice-divorced American woman, thus making it necessary for Prince Albert (Firth) to overcome his flaw so that he can lead his nation in a time of turmoil as King George VI.
The problem with Bertie, as his family calls him, is that he stammers. He stammers quite badly, as a matter of fact, and it’s to the point where he really can’t speak in public without being humiliated. Plus, the late 1930’s was a time where a stammer was seen by many as a sign of stupidity. Bertie’s father, King George V (Michael Gambon) would occasionally ask Bertie to fulfill his royal duty and make some speech over the radio or make some other public address, but these speeches always turned into disasters due to his stammering. We also find out over the course of the story that Bertie had a difficult childhood with a series of health problems and an older brother who took sadistic pleasure in tormenting him.
There were a couple of things in The King’s Speech that were done exceptionally well by Director Tom Hooper (Oscar winner for Best Director) and Screenwriter David Seidler (Oscar Winner for Best Original Screenplay). The first thing that they did very well was setting up Bertie’s condition and his reluctance to make it better due to his belief that it never could be better. The driving force behind this story is Bertie’s flaw and its hold over his personality. If causes him to be overly temperamental, it causes him to lack self-confidence and it causes him to become withdrawn. However we’re simultaneously shown a character who is a devoted family man and is completely in love with his wife and adores and is attentive to his children. In fact, he’s willing to crawl on the floor and pretend to be a penguin in order to tell a fanciful story to his daughters, and he does this with nary a stutter to be heard. He is comfortable with his own family, but his royal duties are too much for him to bear.
The other very effective thing the film makers did, and this could have been a product of historical fact, but they forced Bertie to have to confront his flaws and they provided dire consequences should he fail. Bertie’s brother was the exact opposite of him in every way. He was adventurous and debonair and sophisticated, and on the outside looked to be the perfect heir to the throne. The role was played perfectly by Pierce, who carried himself with a sophisticated and cock-sure attitude that belied the inner conflict that was forcing him to choose between the woman he loved and the Crown. As it turned out in a nice bit of dramatic irony, the royal duties were too much for King Edward III to bear as well. So at this point, Bertie was forced to be crowned King just as the United Kingdom was preparing to enter into war with Germany, and the nation needed him to allay their fears with words of hope and comfort. But he couldn’t speak. The one thing that he needed to do was the one thing that he could not do. That is outstanding storytelling and the key to setting up a dramatic situation. That simple idea that he had to speak and yet couldn’t speak is the dramatic crux that carries the whole story, and probably is what made it resonate for so many people.
That’s where Lionel Logue (Rush) comes in. Bertie’s wife Elizabeth (Bonham Carter) provides the inciting incident for this film when she goes to his office to recruit for his services. He’s a speech therapist who uses techniques that are eccentric and unconventional. This is a nice way to create tension between characters because the last people you would think of who would be accepting of eccentric and unconventional behavior are the royal family. Starving for results since no other speech therapist has been able to produce any, Elizabeth convinces Bertie to give Logue a try. Logue’s unorthodox practices are made apparent right away, but so are the results. This quirky man who seems as unprofessional as he could possibly be seems to be the one man who holds the key to solving Bertie’s issue. However, Bertie’s stubbornness prevents him from opening up fully to Logue, and that stubbornness is what drives the story going forward.
I would like to take a moment to point out that I don’t think anyone could have played the role of Lionel Logue any better than Geoffrey Rush did. In thinking about his most iconic roles from films like Shine, Pirates of the Caribbean and Shakespeare in Love, Rush has the ability to bring a natural quirkiness to his characters. And yet as other roles he’s performed in films like Elizabeth and The Book Thief show that he can bring the dramatic gravitas that is needed for more serious stories. Rush was able to combine these traits in The King’s Speech into a kind of quirky gravitas that not many other actors could naturally pull off. Logue was a character who took very seriously his job at hand, but knew that the need to go about it in a unique way was indispensable to achieve success. This depth of purpose makes Lionel Logue one of the great mentors in cinema, and another driver of this film.
There is one other very strong story-telling component that Hooper and Seidler gave us, and that is the motif of the ticking clock. After Edward has abdicated, he leaves Bertie as the head of a nation on the brink of war. Of tantamount importance is for the King to address his subjects and offer them some words of encouragement and comfort as the nation is about to start down a long, dark and dangerous path. He has to give a great speech and he has to give it soon. However due to his stubbornness and temper, Bertie has yet to become master over his stammer, and he has at various times sent Logue away out of frustration. Logue, for his part, has refused to give up on Bertie, and he assists him through the coronation right up to the time he has to give his speech, and in fact coaches him through it as Bertie speaks into the microphone. Their dual moment of triumph has arrived.
To me, The King’s Speech is a film that is made up of several well-crafted components and motifs, and yet is somehow less than the sum of its parts. It has several dramatic motifs, like the examples previously mentioned, and is yet somehow not a very dramatic film. A great example of how this happened is the ticking clock motif that I mentioned. The first problem with it is that they introduced it way too late. We’re into the third act of the film before Bertie even knows he’s going to be king, let alone before he knows he’s going to have to make this important speech. That means that by the time we get to the ticking clock, it doesn’t have enough time to build up any kind of tension. Therefor the ticking clock essentially loses its effectiveness as a motif.
I think the other problem this film has is that up until the third act, we don’t know what the stakes are, other than Bertie’s peace of mind. This is a character driven film. There is no clear antagonist in the film. In fact, the only one keeping Bertie from getting what he needs is Bertie himself along with his own flaws, and there are only so many times someone can refuse help before it becomes repetitive. With that in mind, we never get a good sense of what’s at stake if he never gets over his stammer. Why should we care if he stammers or not. We spend two thirds of the film without any substantive reason to care. Within the confines of the story, we don’t know that he’s eventually going to become king. We can see that it’s a possibility over the course of the second act, but for a long time it remains this vaguely nebulous idea more than an overhanging threat.
As likable and as deep of a character that Bertie was, I found myself having a hard time caring about what he was going through until the third act, when the stakes were raised by him becoming king and having to address the nation. And even then, I found the stakes that they proposed to still be somewhat vague, and to be honest, a little condescending as well. In fact, Bertie even says that as King he can’t do anything of substance. He has no power to levy taxes, declare war or sign laws. He’s a figurehead, and his speech is 100% about increasing the collective morale of the nation. For an historical drama such as this one, this style of storytelling works all right to the minimum degree necessary, but it is not a model that I would recommend to be followed by aspiring screenwriters.
That is my ultimate take on The King’s Speech. It is a film that is less than the sum of its parts. The parts were beautifully and meticulously created, but something was missing when they were all put together. The pieces by themselves are dramatic and rich, but the overall film, while entertaining and containing magnificent acting, is not dramatic, is not tense and is not all that compelling until the third act. As I’ve said in the past, the ending can save or ruin a film. The King’s Speech is a good example of a good film that was made great by a remarkable ending.
I should also mention that Colin Firth joined the Three-Timers’ Club, having had supporting roles in previous Best Picture winners The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love. Even though is roles were of a supportive nature in each of those films, he ended up being the antagonist to each film’s hero by the end, so his role in each film was important. Also, he’s one of the better actors of our generation. He’s demonstrated that he can do anything from romance to drama to action to comedy, and he does everything well. He’s a fine actor and a worthy addition to the Three-Timers’ Club.
Did the Academy get it right?
I am here to tell you that no, they did not. Even though The King’s Speech had all of the buzz coming into Oscar season, and Oscar night was a (no pun intended) coronation, there were at least a couple of films that were better. I didn’t see 127 Hours, so I can’t really speak to that film. I was not a huge fan of Inception, and the only reason I can think that it was nominated was that it did generate a lot of buzz, and it was a compelling film from a visual standpoint, but I thought the story was clumsily told and I could never get myself to care about the characters. I was a little disappointed that Toy Story 3 was nominated, but that’s another example of an amazing ending saving an otherwise ordinary film. I have a lot of problems with Toy Story 3 that I won’t get into here, but in my opinion it wasn’t even the best animated film released that year. That distinction should have gone to How to Train Your Dragon. Black Swan was a dark, yet compelling film that I couldn’t look away from. It actually had a very sophisticated screenplay and Natalie Portman did an amazing job of carrying the action. Ultimately, it was probably too dark to win Best Picture. I loved Winter’s Bone and felt that it might have been the most dramatic film released that year. It was an independent film that introduced a lot of us to Jennifer Lawrence, and it was very deliberate in its pacing, but it was a very powerful film. I also really like The Kids are All Right, but I don’t think it would have been nominated had the Academy still only been nominating five films per year. The same holds true with True Grit. It was one of my favorite films of the year, it wasn’t the best picture of the year. A lot of people felt that The Social Network was the best film of 2010, and it’s hard to disagree. The story of the creation of Facebook was dramatic, well-told and entertaining. It also had great performances and it was a dynamic film. However, my favorite film of the year by far was The Fighter. I felt The Fighter did everything The King’s Speech tried to do but didn’t. The Fighter was about overcoming your own flaws and the weight of your family and your past to do something remarkable. It has amazing performances by Christian Bale (Best Supporting Actor) and Melissa Leo (Best Supporting Actress), as well as Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams. These characters all overcome demons and this film is more dramatic, more entertaining and better in almost every way than The King’s Speech. The Fighter is your true Best Picture of 2010.