It seems that “Based on a True Story” is a qualifier used more and more these days. This year alone contains the films 127 Hours, The Fighter, and The Social Network, which are all “based on…” to varying degrees. It’s logical that dramatic reality is more compelling than dramatic fiction, and regardless of how truthfully one’s film follows that reality, people are going to respond to it. The problem then comes when a filmmaker takes advantage of this fact and tells us a story that isn’t entirely worth telling, or a story more intriguing on paper than the screen. It’s not black and white either, with films like The Social Network telling first-rate tales but taking huge liberties in order to do so. Luckily, there are films like The King’s Speech, which don’t require any embroidery to astound us. Films that have found the perfect historical confluence of event and characters and themes. It’s the rarity of films like this that makes them so special, but in the case of The King’s Speech it’s also the quality of the yarn. It is surely one of the best stories you’ve never heard.
It’s early 1930s London and the royal family’s second son Albert (Colin Firth) can’t speak. Not well anyway. Not without his words catching and halting. He has seen every doctor of note, and while in every other way Albert is a competent, intelligent, and fully formed Prince, the Windsor family is entering the age of the wireless. His father King George V’s (Michael Gambon) radio addresses have become a touchstone for the British people, and a reminder of Prince Albert’s handicap. His wife, the future Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) tracks down the heralded and unorthodox Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) and Bertie for the first time begins to make real progress with his stammer. In his father’s passing, his brother David (Guy Pearce) takes the throne, only to months later abdicate and embed Albert as the new King George VI. When the country eventually declares war with Germany, it is with the strength of words that the King must unify his people.
The Oscar season forces more discussion about performance than usual, but it’s impossible to avoid here. Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter are both great, but that’s nothing new. They’re both nearly always great. Colin Firth though is more than great, apart even from all the impressive vocal performance stuff. The stuttering and the lost R’s in his speech are the sort of dynamic character fragments that a tenured actor should be able to do, and do well. Acting through those hindrances though is the feat that Firth achieves with such power. This character is not defined by his stammer, so much as he is defined by everything hidden by the stammer. He is powerful and brilliant and sensitive and precisely the man you want to be a King. Conveying these varying traits while walking the tightrope of a speech impediment is an enterprise that one must see to truly appreciate.
Outside of Firth’s luminous performance is…well…any number of things worth talking about. For one thing, Director Tom Hooper has lovingly sculpted the setting of England in the 1930s. His drearily romantic images recall a children’s picture book, with billowing fog and desaturated colors that are somehow beautiful when they should be depressing. Added to this visual melancholy is a style of cinematography both aggressive and fluid; one which often positions character’s heads and bodies in some formerly unexplored portion of the frame, allowing a wall or sky to dominate your view. It’s an intriguing way of shooting pictures, though almost to a fault. Occasionally you’re so caught up in the cinematographer’s choices you forget to pay attention to the scene. It’s actually a bit of a shock realizing how green Director Tom Hooper is considering not only the quality of this film, but the technical proficiency. It’s not that he’s entirely untested, but his first real entry into the big awards game is such a strong one. Tom Hooper is officially a name to know.
Still, the element that pushes The King’s Speech into the upper echelon may in fact be the one that the cast, crew, director and screenwriter had the littlest to do with: the story’s remarkable scale. Viewed one way, this is a tale of two men, their friendship, and the way that friendship pushed them both together and towards a common goal. A pure and familiar theme seen many times over and forever affecting. Looked at another way, this is the story of a vastly important figure and his impotence to be the man he knows himself capable of being. Albert isn’t a traditionally insecure character, as his limitation isn’t so much an internal one. So often these characters are emotionally fragile, and while there is an element of that to Bertie, his shortcoming is more of a physical manifestation. Put another way, he is in control of every single part of himself but his mouth, and is heading full steam ahead towards a pivotal moment in which his mouth is the only thing capable of bringing him safely to the other side. This speech given shortly after England’s pronouncement of war with Germany is a perfect conflux of the young King and his physical malfunction, his qualms about leadership, and the revelation of a truly good friend.
For me this film came entirely out of left field, and I think it’s because on paper it seems so plain. No matter how you put it, this is a story about a King who stuttered, which ends up seeming more comedic than anything. A role for Ricky Gervais, maybe. That’s not the truth of it though. The King’s Speech is a film triumphant and touching, brilliant and beautiful, minimal and grand. It’s a tale of friendship, and of being heroic in struggling against one’s own faltering. It’s a film about spirit and strength. These are all very lofty proclamations, I know. Ultimately I can talk all day about how wonderful the film is, but this is one you simply have to see and feel to recognize as truly something momentous.