Britain’s best actors show off in fancy period piece
The King’s Speech is a lavishly furnished playground for Brit actors, with Colin Firth’s prize-winning performance being the most conspicuous instance, but far from the only one. And the actors’ savory theatrics combine with the historical backdrop—the royal family in the decade before World War II—to make the film a field day for Anglophile culture buffs as well.
While Firth is very good indeed, the film is at its most electric in that esteemed actor’s scenes with the estimable Geoffrey Rush, who plays the émigré Australian Lionel Logue, who became the elocution coach to a future King of England, the stammering Duke of York (Firth).
The royal heir’s battle with his speech impediment in historically fraught circumstances is deftly played to genuinely touching emotional effect, but the odd-couple friendship that develops between these two men takes final precedence over the social and historical dynamics on which it also trades.
Director Tom Hooper’s mise en scéne is somewhat overwrought, but he shows good sense in letting his actors convey the groundswells of emotion that are more implied than proclaimed in screenwriter David Seidler’s mostly understated dialogue. Much of the best acting in the film is a matter of two-part ensembles—Firth with Rush in particular, but also with Helena Bonham Carter (as his wife and queen), Michael Gambon (as his father, George V), and Guy Pearce (as the older brother who abdicates the throne to him).
A queasy sort of caricature and disproportion prevails in the film’s cinematography and set design, and that stylized element seeps into most of the characterizations as well. Pearce’s reluctant royal heir has the dignified bearing of a future king, but in close-ups he looks overripe, dissolute and prematurely moribund. Variously cadaverous portraiture is visited upon nearly every character of any consequence, and with special virulence on the abdicant Edward’s controversial American paramour Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).
Bonham Carter’s quietly regal portrayal of supportive royal domesticity may be the only significant figure uninfected by Hooper’s caricatural virus. Timothy Spall’s cartoonishly gnomelike Winston Churchill seems distractingly odd but not without offbeat interest. Gambon is a perfectly credible George V look-alike. Star supporting players Derek Jacobi (the Archbishop) and Claire Bloom (the Queen Mother) are little more than makers of prestige, alas.
Finally, there’s quite a lot to savor and contemplate in this entertaining little dramatic foray, but it all adds up to something a little less than meets the eye. For all its attendant pomp and circumstance, The King’s Speech boils down to the story of two unlikely actors bonding over a shared opportunity to perform honorably on a grander stage than either of them had any real reason to expect.