5 January 2011


There's a certain type of film that comes out around awards season, and The King's Speech broadly fits into it. I don't mean British period drama, a sub-set that seems to fascinate Americans and particularly Academy voters, but a film that markets historical events to its audience with the same maniacal fervour as Bill Murray's network executive hocks his version of A Christmas Carol in Scrooged. ("They have got to be so scared to miss it, so terrified!")

The story itself concerns Prince Albert, the Duke of York, and his problems with a debilitating speech impediment. His sympathetic wife seeks slightly unorthodox help for Albert from a jobbing Australian actor called Lionel Logue, and the two make some progress together as they strike up an uneasy friendship. Matters escalate however when Albert is suddenly bumped up a couple of places in the line of succession to the throne. As war looms over Europe, Britain needs a king who can speak straight...

Two years ago, the first new film I saw in 2009 was Slumdog Millionaire. It ended up being my favourite film of the year. Danny Boyle's next film is also released this week, but after going into The King's Speech with some scepticism about its awards-worthiness, I came out worried that 2011 may have similarly peaked already. The King's Speech is fantastic, dazzling, brilliant and whatever other superlatives you can conjure up. I realise I erroneously predicted The Lovely Bones would stay in my memory as one of the best of 2010, this time last year, but let me explain what makes this one so good.

I'm not a big fan of period dramas set in Eng-Land (run at it the same way as Kevin Costner runs at "Notting-Ham" in Robin Hood- Prince of Thieves), especially of those in the Shakespeare In Love caste- films that shop shamelessly to the Academy voters and ultimately aren't anything special. I can't say I've often found compelling drama in the lives of privileged and entitled characters, and it's for that reason that last year's much-acclaimed Downton Abbey passed me by completely. The King's Speech is actually a tale of empowerment in which the protagonist is the future King of England, and I adored it.

The Damned United director Tom Hooper has rightly got everyone's attention with his second big film, bringing a distinctive and very stylish directorial look to the feature, and allowing all of the separate parts of the whole to breathe, from Alexandre Desplat's lovely score to Eve Stewart's sumptuous production design. Crucially, he's prepared to show off his highly talented cast and let them get on with their work to the very best of their abilities, as each of them continues to up their game whenever sharing the screen with a colleague.

Most obviously, we see that in the dynamic between Colin Firth as the King in waiting and Geoffrey Rush as his irreverent therapist. Firth gives a phenomenal turn that never screams "Just give me the Oscar now", but conveys pretty much the same message. It's not only in his entirely believable stammer, but in how utterly sympathetic his plight is. With great pathos, he dominates scenes where we see the full extent of his affliction- he can't even read a bedtime story to his young children without tripping over his words, such are his nervous issues.

Rush forms one of the great screen bromances with him as Logue, and his scenes with Firth largely occur in long, almost theatrical two-hander scenes that are always the highlight of the film. Much of his own struggle is in bringing the already nervous Albert down a notch or two without completely destroying his confidence. These men must become equals. As mentioned, these two actors make each other's performances better simply by being there.

Yeah, it's a crowd-pleaser, in much the same way as Slumdog Millionaire was when it impressed me so early in 2009, but so what? It doesn't mean it can't be great. You're part of a crowd, aren't you? Take a chance that this one will please you, at least, rather than whatever other films crowds will flock to this year! I didn't go into this one particularly expecting to be impressed, but the overwhelming thing about the film is how much it makes you care, and how quickly it ingratiates you in the characters and the setting. It's got a great sense of humour, great performances, great cinematography and rarest of all, it has Helena Bonham Carter looking human for a change, for what feels like the first time since before she married Tim Burton.

It takes a cynical mindset, more cynical than even my own, to come out of The King's Speech feeling like it was pandering or cloying or false, and these are all things I halfway expected going in. It's going to pick up a clutch of awards, at the BAFTAs, if not at the Oscars, and it deserves every one. It's a film that's determinedly winsome and inclusive, and it's the consistently feel-good film that everyone actually claimed Slumdog was. I'm not declaring it the film of the (very young) year right now, for obvious reasons, but I will say this- if 2011 gets much better, I'm in for a hell of a good 12 months at the cinema.

The King's Speech is showing in cinemas nationwide from Friday.
If you've seen The King's Speech, why not share your comments below? If you remember to take your Harry Potter spotter's guide, you'll pick up a whole bunch of stars from the films- Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall, Michael Gambon...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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