Saturday, July 9, 2011

Can this King deliver? - "The King's Speech" Review

For years an interesting and somewhat perplexing relationship has formed between the two most unlikely of partners, Hollywood and British royalty.  In a market that demands dramatic heroes, flashy special effects, and self-made heroes, where do all these films about characters born into a life of luxury find an audience?

Maybe it is the notion that American audiences might find a pleasurable escape into a world that is full of beautiful clothing and a political system we were once a part of.  It could also provide an interesting view into a world where one person’s actions can determine the course of an entire country; especially considering America’s current political stalemate that makes it harder and harder for an individual to feel like their actions matter.

However, this can also cause a film to be alienating and hard to relate to.  Who cares if the King cannot find love?  He’s the King!

The King’s Speech is this year’s version of the political period piece and it faces all these questions and more, as it completely relies on an audience investing their emotions on the personal struggle of King George VI of England.

Is The King’s Speech able to make the British royalty relatable and emotionally satisfying?  Or, like Great Britain, is the political period piece an island America has long since seperated itself from?

Colin Firth portrays Prince Albert, the second son of King George V, who happens to have a very particular problem.  We meet Albert at a time when, as the film smartly points out, the role of a politician is evolving, with the popularization of radio, from a distant ruler to that of an actor.

The Prince is ordered by his father to address the entire nation by radio for the first time.  He seems nervous and hesitant to even open his mouth, as he cautiously shuffles up to microphone in front of a monumental crowd at Wembley Stadium.  As soon as he begins to speak it is made immediately apparent why.

The Prince has an incredible stutter.

It can be hard to believe that money and power can’t make someone happy.  Surely with all those resources at one’s command happiness should be easily attainable.  The strongest aspect of The King’s Speech is how thoroughly that idea is turned on its head.  In Prince Albert’s case, one small flaw comes to define his entire life, crippling him beyond belief.

After several failed attempts to cure himself of his stammer, Albert’s wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) seeks out Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a quirky and unconventional Australian speech therapist living in London.

Logue is brash, confident, and lives to perform.  The pairing of Logue and Prince Albert couldn’t make for an odder couple, and the film takes full advantage of this strange partnership to full comedic and dramatic effect.

When Prince Albert’s father passes away and his brother abdicates the throne, Albert is thrust into the position of King.  War is looming on the horizon with Germany as Nazi forces slowly threaten to overtake the rest of Europe.

Britain is looking for a strong leader to usher them to war with Germany, and it is up to Albert to deliver the three-page declaration of war with Germany over a radio broadcast.

The rest of the film follows the ups and downs of Albert and Logue’s relationship as they prepare for Albert to deliver a speech that may just come to define Great Britain’s character in World War II.

The King’s Speech could have very easily been an unengaging story about the King having to go through the difficult process of speech therapy lessons.  Instead, it is a tremendous character piece and odd couple comedy, that does its best to avoid actual speech therapy lessons.

Most of the credit for The King's Speech's success is due to the amazing performances of the film's inspired cast.  Colin Firth’s depiction of Albert is so incredibly natural, balanced, and human that it’s hard to even consider that he might be acting.

His attention to detail and conviction in portraying Albert’s stutter is unquestionably brilliant.  Not a single convulsion or tick feels forced or acted, its almost as if Colin has had a stutter all along.

Geoffrey Rush is also perfect as his unconventional therapist Lionel Logue.  Rush’s confidence fills the screen. While Albert comments about how bad his verbal timing is, Rush’s couldn’t be stronger.  Every line he delivers is better than the last; many of them providing incredible laughs that are well deserved and constructed.

The scenes between the two are incredibly witty and full of depth thanks to screenwriter David Seidler.  Seidler was born to write this script, having lived his life with a stutter and looking to Albert as his childhood role model.

Director Tom Hooper, (HBO’s John Adams), has crafted an incredibly handsome film with The King’s Speech.  The way he shoots the film is surprisingly diverse, from long moving shots to oddly composed shots that leave the characters hugging the edges of the frame.

These strange images help the audience get into the mindset of Albert as he struggles with his terrible stutter.  They can be a bit disconcerting but this is all intentional.  This also helps The King’s Speech avoid becoming like a stage play and turns it into a unique film-going experience.

The King’s Speech manages to become an emotionally compelling film that breaks down the standard barriers that films about royalty are straddled with.  Instead it focuses on how a man with so much power can be made to feel so powerless by a small personal defect.  Albert’s struggle to overcome and define his own place in history is comedic, emotional, and best of all masterfully simple.

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