In an industry often assaulted by a deluge of manipulative, crass and trite films that attempt to inspire their audience, The King’s Speech remains a film of great integrity. While it’s unlikely the actual events occurred exactly as depicted, the quality of the directing, performances and storytelling craft a tale which refuses to resort to cheap trickery to achieve its goals.
Before his days as King George VI (Colin Firth), Prince Albert faced a particularly embarrassing and debilitating problem: a speech impediment. The necessity to make public speeches as a member of the royal family resulted in many episodes of embarrassment followed by many more episodes of embarrassment in worthless speech therapy. But Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), Albert’s wife, persists in seeking out therapy and takes him to Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian therapist with an unusual series of techniques.
The film is a tale of perseverance and triumph in the face of seemingly overwhelming obstacles. These are the kinds of inspirational tales that usually get knocked against by cynics like myself, but this one works as an honest and effective tale that truly inspires for a number of reasons. Unlike other films that attempt to inspire through sweeping music, grandiose accomplishments and insurmountable objects being overcome, this film focuses on something far more personal.
Albert’s obstacle exists not in the external world that surrounds him, but with himself. While many an inspirational film exists around a hero trying to save the world, Albert must simply overcome his own flaws as a person. His problem is not simply his speech impediment, but his frothing bursts of anger and lack of confidence. His problem is himself and only through changing his own habits can he hope to achieve anything.
His external conflict is a common task that yet remains the object of great fear for many: public speaking. Even today in the age of information, the thought of speaking in front of a group of strangers is terrifying. Albert has just as much of a fear in speaking to his own brother, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) let alone the nation. The fact that he’s able to overcome such a fear from a place far weaker than most people can inspire them to face their own fear in something they will likely have to overcome in their own lives.
What helps bring all this together, unifies it into something memorable, engaging and endearing is a fantastic performance by Colin Firth. No other lead actor this year was as skillful and deliberate as Firth. The physicality of the stutter itself proved challenging enough, but he also must embody a charter who is both somewhat unlikable and yet deeply sympathetic. His bursts of anger and arrogance play against his deep vulnerability.
And yet for all the talk of the fantastic acting, uplifting storytelling and relatable situations, it’s also a highly entertaining film. Alongside True Grit and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, this remains one of the most consistently entertaining films from moment to moment. It’s one of the funniest films of the year, with a script as witty and clever as they come.
But above all, what makes The King’s Speech work is the fact that unlike a number of inspirational films, it’s never manipulating the audience. There isn’t a sappy score tearing at the audience or manipulative camerawork trying to eek out unwarranted emotions. It’s a film that lets the story and performances shine through, trusting that they alone will be enough to incite true inspiration.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing