Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Movie Review: THE KING'S SPEECH (The Weinstein Company/UK Film Council, 2010)

This movie is only getting a limited theatrical release in the U.S. at the moment -- if it snaps up the Best Picture Oscar in a few months, as seems distinctly possible, then the hinterlands may be graced with it -- but if you're fortunate enough to live in an area where it's playing, then hie yourself to the appropriate playhouse and see it. King George VI's fumbling efforts to conquer a speech impediment may not strike you as promising fodder for a crowd-pleasing movie plot, but this is that rare "Oscar-bait" film that chooses to celebrate the best of the human spirit, as opposed to focusing voyeuristically on the worst human sins. In its depiction of the growing relationship between the reluctant monarch (who only became King because his brother abdicated the throne to marry an American divorcee) and the puckish Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue -- whose unorthodox therapies fluster, enrage, puzzle, and at long last win over his unlikely client -- the movie also comments with wit and warmth on the social divisions of Great Britain on the brink of World War II. The social fabric that had been badly torn by World War I was still sturdy enough to affect everyday interpersonal exchange, but it was already clear that the future of British society was going to be quite different. The film's ability to make this point without hammering us over the head with some sort of political statement is one of its biggest strengths.

George VI (Colin Firth, in a performance that will almost surely be rewarded with an Oscar) came to the throne at a moment when, as acidly noted by his father George V (Michael Gambon), the British monarchy was being forced into "playing a role" as opposed to wielding real political power. Kings and queens, who were now expected to address their subjects directly via the medium of radio, had begun their slow transition from political figures to mass-media celebrities. Though enjoying a happy home life with the devoted Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and daughters Elizabeth and Margaret -- and, after all the tabloid travails of recent decades, don't think that I didn't appreciate the positive portrayal of a royal family -- George VI lacks confidence in his ability to connect with his subjects on even a superficial level. The quirky, opinionated Logue (Geoffrey Rush), as part of his therapy, gradually probes into his reluctant client's past, revealing the dark side of royal life -- an overly demanding father, an insensitive brother -- but also pulling "Bertie" out of his shell. After surviving several rocky patches and one apparent breakup, the George-Logue axis comes into its own when George is obliged to rally the country at the outset of World War II. The set-piece speech that concludes (and gives title to) the film is a fitting triumph for both the King and the man who literally helped him to find his voice.

The King's Speech gets what must be the softest "R" rating on record, simply because "Bertie" is made to spout some "f-words" as part of his unusual therapy. In context, this passes almost unnoticed. (Of course, this being the 1930s, there is plenty of smoking, so perhaps the movie gained back its "R" that way.) In all honesty, the "offensive" material is no more "offensive" than a particularly high-gloss episode of Masterpiece Theatre, which the film certainly resembles at times. Don't let the highbrow trappings put you off; this is definitely a feel-good movie in the "classic" Hollywood tradition.


Mark Lungo said...

filmratings.com says The King's Speech is "Rated R for some language. "

Chris Barat said...


Far better it would have been, "Rated PG/PG13 for a VERY LITTLE BIT of language." Evidently there is a zero tolerance policy regarding even the in-context use of certain words.