Two-thousand-ten’s Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, The Kingspeech, is an unusually restrained film. It takes place during the slow build to World War II, concerning Great Britain’s royal family during a most trying time, as the throne is being prepared to switch hands (or be-hinds, as it were). The heir to the throne, Prince Edward (Guy Pearce), has been having a string of affairs. That’s not such a big deal, except that all of his mistresses have in common that they are divorced or are getting divorced, a big no-no for one who will be the de facto head of the Church of England. Yet with all of these conflicts bubbling around, the film takes a rather striking approach: it focuses on Prince Albert (Colin Firth) and his struggles with an awful stammer, then on the soon-to-be King’s first real friendship. The Nazis are amassing an army in the background, but The Kingspeech instead wants to see whether these guys like hanging out together. It’s an early twentieth century bromance.
The movie is so fluid and calm that it works. The sets are sparse; large and open, with few items of furniture. When Prince Albert transforms into King George VI and has to deliver the speech which the title suggests, he is brought into a room that is empty aside from a podium with a microphone. In the relative emptiness of the frame, it becomes clear that the film must rely primarily on the skill of its actors to survive; luckily, the central players are all exquisite. Firth won the Academy Award for his performance (and deservedly so), filling the role that Daniel Day-Lewis did a few years ago as the actor who did not only the best acting, but also the most. His stammering and stuttering never feels false: the actor seems to truly stumble over the words. It was very recently that I was struck by Geoffrey Rush in Quills, and he once again shines as Albert’s speech therapist Lionel Logue. Logue is gregarious and kind, thoughtful but quick-witted. It’s an absolute pleasure to watch Rush in the role, gently rubbing Albert the wrong way in order to provoke a reaction. And finally, there’s Helena Bonham-Carter, an actress who has grown tiresome in her seemingly endless string of Tim Burton-esque roles (this includes her role in the Harry Potter series), but who here is much more refined. Where Logue can be quietly abrasive, Bonham-Carter as the soon-to-be Queen Elizabeth is a softer shoulder for Albert to turn to. Though the two don’t share any particularly romantic moments in the traditional sense, it’s clear from the way they interact that Albert and Elizabeth care deeply for one another, as much friends as lovers. The way she smiles at her husband, or the pained expression on her face that shows she feels the same pain when he publicly falters in his speech… these are small gestures, but they mean so much.
The crux of the film, though, is in the slowly building friendship between Albert and Lionel. They start with some antagonism toward one another, at least on the part of the Prince. Who can blame him, though, after having seen a string of previous physicians and quacks who all had their own ideas about how to cure his majesty of that unfortunate vocal impediment? Logue’s radical method of treatment is simply to make the patient feel comfortable. He does that by treating his patient much as he would any other. Logue calls his patient “Bertie”, a nickname reserved for use only by family and friends. He asks probing personal questions, about Bertie’s earliest memory, or if he can put into words the reasons that he finds his brother Edward to be so intimidating. The friction between the two men is worn away gradually. Director Tom Hooper has an impressive control over the pace of the film, letting the relationship build ever-so gradually, ever-so precisely so that by the time that Bertie does eventually begin to let Logue in by discussing those things from his past which have shaped him, it’s not the sudden confession of an inebriated man breaking down finally, nor is it the skillfully twisted questions from the therapist prying information from his patient. Logue is, of course, aware of the significance of the moment far more than Albert is, but the floodgates are not loosened by the one glass of alcohol the men share. Instead, it’s because Albert feels at ease, enough that he can let down his guard and talk frankly with a friend.
This is an extraordinary moment, one which I believe rivals the climactic speech-reading scene (doesn’t that sound exciting?) for raw, emotional power. The climax brings together everything that has been building in a remarkable and poignant way, but it is pre-ordained. The quiet moment between the two men alone, that’s far more exciting for me because it accomplishes so much on such a smaller scale. A great speech delivered to the world at large is a spectacular thing; an honest dialogue spoken as much to oneself as to a close friend, that’s something magnificent.
There are things which disrupt the flow, most notably a late-in-the-game spat over Logue’s credentials which comes entirely out of left-field. As the A.V. Club’s review rightly points out, this forced conflict ends up “straining credulity in the name of conventionality”, thus momentarily taking the viewer out of the story. And though I know the chain of events requires it, it’s hard not to be bothered by the speed with which King George V (Michael Gambon) goes from an eloquent, impassioned ruler to a blubbering mess of a man beset with a mix of pneumonia and dementia. This is followed by the short rule of King Edward VIII, which again is historically necessary, but narratively jarring. Albert nods to the political tightrope that the quick succession of leadership has led him to, but it isn’t developed enough to bring much to the final events of the movie. It’s hard to see King George VI’s war-time speech as a pivotal moment determining his leadership ability; instead, it seems that the world applauds him simply for not messing up.
So The Kingspeech is a surprisingly simple, yet engaging film. Though the narrative does stumble awkwardly in places, those few moments are off-set by the rest of the time when the growth builds naturally and easily. I don’t know that I believe that this was the best film of 2010, but I can certainly understand how others might. It is a very good film.