2001. An 11th grader stands in front of his class. In his hands he holds a piece of paper from which he is supposed to read out a hand written essay on Achilles. Try hard as he may, not a single word escapes his mouth. The silence is very real and very painful. So are the unforgiving eyes of his classmates staring back at him. Self consciousness, frustration, self loathing anger…
That was me, a decade ago, an excessively self-conscious fifteen year-old on the verge of sixteen—a painful self-awareness triggered in part by the fact that my voice hadn’t ‘broken’ yet. It wasn’t until the third year of my undergrad education that a speech therapist helped me overcome an impediment that for years had seemed an insurmountable obstacle.
Overwhelming memories came flooding back in a goose bumps inducing rush as I watched Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the Duke of York, stutter, stammer, struggle with the imposing (almost authoritarian) microphone, and eventually go silent amidst the glaring stares and silent mockeries of hundreds of people in the opening scenes of Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech. It could very well be that the personal connect I felt made this sequence far more powerful than it actually is, but what the heck! This is my review and a very personal one. That the protagonist is a long-suffering royal, a prince, and the future King George VI adds a screenplay-friendly romantic dimension to the tale. But this detail is incidental to what is essentially, in my opinion, a stylised paean to everyone who’s overcome a psychologically debilitating speech defect.
The film—as has been pointed out by reviewers and critics far more accomplished than me—derives its strength from the performances of and the chemistry between Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. Rush plays the stubborn, irreverent, wisecracking Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist known for his unorthodox methods and is an apt foil to his ‘patient’, the intense, and doubtingly proud Prince Albert with his restrained—subtle in a stiff-upper-lip sort of way—sense of humour. Helena Bonham Carter delivers an endearing and polished performance as Prince Albert’s loving and determined wife.
The King’s Speech has been extensively reviewed, criticised, and commented on. So I’ll refrain from summarising the plot and instead limit myself to commenting on those aspects of the movie that, in my opinion, have been ignored, overlooked, or unfairly criticised in other reviews. Whether Tom Hooper deserved the Best Director Oscar as opposed to, say, Darren Aronofsky will continue to be debated. Hooper may not be a visionary, but he is a master of a certain old-fashioned straightforward style of film making based on neat scripts, clear cinematography, precise art direction, and solid performances. When all these aspects come together so beautifully, as in The King’s Speech, you just can’t complain.
The execution of the climactic King’s speech—the first war-time radio broadcast by King George VI—is a stroke of genius that seems to have escaped the notice of most nitpicking critics. From the close-up shot of Colin Firth’s face as the red lamp flashes four times to Geoffrey Rush almost conducting the speech as if it were a musical composition—accompanied in the background by the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony—it’s sheer perfection. But that’s just the setup for the true star of the scene—the intangible tongue-in-cheek irony of the solemn head of the English Church delivering a solemn speech, all the while modulating his voice using swear-words and expletives! In one masterstroke, Hooper brings together Lionel Logue’s unorthodox irreverence, the intensity of Firth’s King George, the solemnity of the occasion, and the sheer exhilaration of a seemingly insurmountable impediment finally conquered. My only misgiving: I was so moved by Beethoven’s momentous composition playing out in the background that at moments I had to struggle to bring my attention back to the speech!
One last detail—The King’s Speech is a treat of sorts for aficionados of popular western classical compositions. Look out for at least two pieces: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture and Beethoven’s 7th. They aptly complement the mood of the scenes in which they are used.
Bottom line: A neatly scripted, straightforward narrative with clear cinematography, apt music, precise art, and solid performances by Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter that has to be seen and experienced to be appreciated—not visionary or mind-expanding, but genius nonetheless.