Friday, April 29, 2011

The King's Speech: Unexpected appeal

The King's Speech (biography, drama, history)
Cast: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Derek Jacobi
Director: Tom Hooper

Starz/Anchor Bay | 2010 | 118 min | Rated R | Apr 19, 2011

M-PEG4 AVC | 1080p | 1.78:1

English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

English SDH, Spanish

Single 50GB Blu-ray Disc

Film 5/5

Have you ever been involved in public speaking? Even a small audience can be enough to take you out of your comfort zone. Imagine that you stammer and you're required to speak live to more than a quarter of the Earth's population. Throw in the fact that your audience is frightened due to the impending war against Hitler's Germany. A confident, optimistic and inspirational speech is essential.

That's the situation King George VI found himself in.

Historical dramas generally bore me. I'm not particularly interested in the royal family, despite living in the UK for the first 43 years of my life, and have no love for them at all. But for some reason, this works.

Tom Hooper directed the excellent The Damned United, but this is even better. He chose to shoot most of the film in dark rooms rather than focus on the potential splendor offered by Buckingham Palace. Apart from a scene inside Westminster Abbey, most of the rooms are drab. The story is character-driven and works because of the acting rather than the setting.

Colin Firth gives a brilliant performance as King George VI, although he isn't king when the film begins; he's the Duke of York. We see him stumble over an early speech in the 1920s and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (Carter), seeks a speech therapist to help him overcome his impediment.

Doesn't that sound boring?

She finds Lionel Logue (Rush), who has a practice in London's famous Harley Street, and forces her husband to see him. Rush is great as the Australian therapist and supplies much of the humor in the film. The two initially enter into a doctor/patient relationship and eventually become friends.

If I had read that premise without knowing anything else about the story, there's no way you could have convinced me I would care about the characters or the outcome. But the quality of the acting overcomes all that and I did end up caring about a historical speech delivered by a monarch in whom I had zero interest. That says something about the power of this film.

Fans of the Harry Potter movies will be familiar with Michael Gambon, Timothy Spall and Helena Bonham Carter. It's interesting to see them here in serious roles.

The driving force of the story is the friendship between Logue and the future king. Indeed, Logue insists that the two function as equals and calls the Duke Bertie. He apparently has little respect for the monarchy and makes fun of it throughout. Strangely, I'm reminded of The Shawshank Redemption. The two main characters are in a difficult situation and yet manage to form an unlikely friendship, with each sustaining the other.

We are shown early attempts by renowned physicians to cure the Duke's stammer, but no progress is made. The Duke's wife finds Logue and arranges an appointment. Logue's methods are unconventional to say the least and provide some of the film's humor. It's a big step for the Duke to trust this irreverent foreigner and relax enough to make progress.

If you allow yourself to be drawn into the story, a peculiar thing happens. Rather than focusing on Firth's technique for stammering, you will start to think about the man he's portraying. There are scenes showing how he behaves when he's alone with his wife and his two little girls, and how they accept him for who he is.

Firth's portrayal isn't over the top. He's a reserved man who isn't used to speaking up for himself. Over the course of the story, we see him grow. He finds that he has a voice.

The R-rating is for language and it absolutely has to be there for the story to work so effectively.

The technical aspects of the film are superb. The sets, costumes, casting, sound and pacing are close to perfect. It won four Oscars: best picture, best director (Hooper), actor in a leading role (Firth) and original screenplay (David Seidler). During his acceptance speech, Seidler revealed that he used to stammer. That explains why he was able to portray that fear so well.

The film won't appeal to everyone. It succeeds because of the dialogue and the strength of the story. There's no action and very little romance. If you like human interest stories, give it a try. It's among the best in that category.

Video Quality 4/5
The video presentation isn't spectacular. The color palette is faded and wintry, filled with grays and blacks. There's occasional noise, such as in the dark shots taken in Logue's elevator. Detail is inconsistent, but strong in places. Most of these appear to be the intended look of the film, but it's slightly disappointing overall.

Audio Quality 4/5
The sound does exactly what it's supposed to do. There are a few instances of crowd noise and background sounds in the streets of London, but this is a film rich in dialogue. It comes across as clear and even throughout.

Special Features 3.5/5
The features appear sparse, but what's present is certainly worth checking out. I would be interested in a more comprehensive package in the future.

Director Tom Hooper's audio commentary is extremely informative.

There's a 23-minute feature with cast and crew detailing the making of the film.

A 22-minute Q&A session with Hooper, Firth, Carter, Pearce and Claire Bloom seems to end all too quickly.

Two speeches from the real King George VI show exactly what Firth achieved. As well as the stutter, Firth had to incorporate a slight impediment when using the letter R. One of the speeches appears at the end of the film, so you can see just how accurate Firth's portrayal was.

The Real Lionel Logue is a 10-minute feature with his grandson Mark. We learn that he discovered some of Logue's diaries containing actual accounts of the meetings with the Duke. A few lines of dialogue were taken from those accounts and used in the film.

And finally, a Public service announcement from the Stuttering Foundation.

It's hard to compare this to any other movie. There's nothing quite like it. I have already mentioned that the friendship reminds me of The Shawshank Redemption, but the overall tone is very different. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is another brilliant film about a man trying to overcome his inability to communicate, although in a more extreme way.

I saw every best picture nomination last year and this was top of my list. Inception and Black Swan both impressed, but for a combination of an engaging story and the technical aspects of making a film, The King's Speech deserved its Oscar success. See it if you enjoy dramas or period paces driven by dialogue.

Overall score 4.5/5 

Click here to find out where The King's Speech ranks in My Top 20 Dramas.

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