So, I was talking to a friend of mine about the movie The King’s Speech and I told him that the movie was very good but that it managed to “raccoon eye me.” He found this comment to be very humorous. In fact, he could not stop laughing at me. Finally, I got him to stop giggling long enough to explain to me what exactly was so funny about me crying for 2 hour and 13 minutes. At that point, he explained to me what “raccoon eyes” means to him and apparently every other boy on the planet and all I can say is “ewwwwww!” Seriously, I’m open to just about anything but….uhmm, no. Sorry, no.
Anyway, when I say that The King’s Speech left me all “raccoon-eyed,” I’m referring to the fact that I started crying about 3 minutes into the film — basically from the first minute that a frightened-looking Colin Firth tried to speak into a microphone — and I didn’t stop until the movie was over.
Why was I crying? A lot of it is because (and I know I say this about almost every movie I see but so what?) I related to the film’s subject matter. Colin Firth plays the future King George VI (father of the current Queen of England). Like millions of others (myself included), George VI spoke with a stutter. Ordinarily this wouldn’t have been a problem (as royalty wasn’t necessarily meant to be seen or heard) but George VI just happens to become king at a time when almost every household has a radio and everyone expects to hear the king’s voice. In short, the people expect the king to not only speak for them but to speak with them as well and George VI finds himself unable to even speak for himself, much less his nation. As a result, his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) secretly arranges for the king to receive help from an eccentric, self-trained speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). The film details the King and Logue’s often contentious friendship, following their relationship up until George VI finds himself, in the days after the start of World War II, required to give the most important speech of his life.
To a certain extent, you’re going to have to take it on faith that The King’s Speech is a very intelligent, very funny, and very entertaining film because there’s no way to describe the film’s general plot without making it sound like one of those really tedious, boring films that always come out in December. However, director Tom Hooper takes material that might otherwise have been dry and predictable and he films it with a surprising flair so that even the most predictable of scenes (i.e., the King and Logue get inebriated together and the King talks about the loneliness of being royal) feel fresh and surprising. This a film that is both interesting to look at and listen to. Hooper recreates an often foggy, pre-World War II London using a palette of grays and faded primaries. As a result, the film somehow manages to be both melancholy and nostalgic at the same time. You marvel at the recreation of the past even with the knowledge that everything’s going to be destroyed in another few years by the onslaught of world war.
Hooper gets uniformly excellent performances from his entire cast. Rush is eccentric without being overly flamboyant and a result, his performance never descends into the cutesy tricks that have marred so many of his recent onscreen turns. Bonham Carter, as well, gives one of her most sympathetic performances, suggesting the class of royalty with just enough hint of the off-center persona that made her the perfect Marla Singer.
However, the film ultimately belongs to Colin Firth. After years of playing upper class idiots and tragically repressed company men, Firth finally gets to play a human being. It’s a tribute to his talent that he manages to be believable as both “Bertie,” the insecure Duke of York and as the man Bertie will eventually become, King George VI. The reason I cried through this film is not just because I used to (and occasionally still do) stutter. The reason was because Firth captured the essence of having so much to say but not feeling as if you’ll ever be allowed to say it. Everything Firth does in this film — whether he’s losing his temper over Lionel’s attempts to get him to open up or sadly trying to tell his daughters a joke or joyfully shouting out every piece of profanity he can think of because he doesn’t stutter while being profane — is perfection. I hate to say that any one was born to play a role (because I think it tends to devalue just how much effort goes into good acting) but it’s hard to escape the feeling that everything Firth has ever done on-screen was simply preparing both him and us for his triumphant performance here.
At the same time, I should add that The King’s Speech is probably the most English (as opposed to British) that I have ever seen. Lionel may question why George VI’s royal duties lead him to suffer but he never once questions whether or not those royal duties are actually necessary. Furthermore, the film also tells the tale of Edward VIII (a wonderfully narcissistic turn from Guy Pearce) and his famous abdication from the British throne so that he could be with “the woman I love,” American Wallis Simpson (played by Nurse Jackie’s Eve Best with a permanent scowl). The film presents Edward and Simpson with absolutely zero sympathy and leaves little doubt that the last thing a member of the British Royal Family should ever do is fall in love with a divorced American.
(That said, the film is probably correct when it suggests that Simpson and Edward were sympathetic to the Nazi cause.)
It says something about the three lead performances and the strength of Hooper’s direction that even I — proud as I am of my roots in Catholic Northern Ireland — still loved this film despite its obvious pro-English bias.
After the movie ended and I had finally managed to stop crying and clean my face, I found myself reflecting on the fact that I feel as if I know so much about the British Royal Family and yet everything I know about them comes from going to the movies. As far as the cinematic family history is concerned, The King’s Speech is the best chapter yet.