The King's Speech

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Has there been a more idiotic decision in recent cinema than Harvey Weinstein’s choice to re-release The King’s Speech as a PG-13 movie? I mean, surely The King’s Speech has been successful enough, winning Oscars galore and raking in hundreds of millions of dollars. Apparently not - now it must appeal to the kids.

And how is Harvey Scissorhands going to achieve this new rating? He’s going to achieve it by cutting out some of the swearing. Now I guess quite a few people could formulate an argument about foul language not being essential to any movie. Never mind that it provides authenticity and mirrors the way that people actually speak (have you ever tried to watch the cleaned-up version of Goodfellas on AMC - it’s fucking weird; especially when the swearing is censored but the bone-shattering violence is left intact). But here the language is also essential to the plot.

One key scene has Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), the King’s speech therapist, proving that the King doesn’t stammer when he swears. The King then goes on to prove the point by swearing beautifully and fluently. It’s the first time in the film that Logue manages to make a dent in the King’s armour - it’s the first time that he begins to get to the core of him. So what justification can there be for altering this? Are they going to have the King say ‘Frick’ and ‘Poop’? That would be fucking ridiculous. And really, is making the film a PG-13 really going to make it any more money? It’s already made a bucketload of dosh on a very meagre budget; I don’t think that castrating it is going to attract floods of kids and teenagers. I think it’s done as well as it’s going to do.

So how do I feel about The King’s Speech winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards? Well, I feel far better now than when I hadn’t seen it. I was highly aggrieved that The Social Network didn’t win and was disappointed to see yet another film about someone overcoming adversity clearing up at the awards. But now that I’ve seen the film, I no longer have any animosity towards it. Yeah I still think that The Social Network got shafted, but The King’s Speech is a fine film.

One of my main fears at school and university was getting up in front of my class and speaking. I would literally worry about it for weeks beforehand and build the event up to colossal proportions in my mind. But I only had to speak to a few kids and a teacher. I didn’t have to get up in front of thousands. Plus I didn’t have a speech impediment. Sure my voice might have wavered as I spoke, but I didn’t have a stammer to contend with.

Another memory from school is having to listen to children with stammers perform presentations. It was always a painful experience. I’d try and be supportive but I have to admit that frustration would always creep into my mind - I’d often be thinking ‘just spit it out’ or ‘how much longer is this going to go on for?’. These aren’t particularly empathetic emotions, but they’re natural ones. So to have a King with a stammer, you’re taking this and blowing it up to a grand scale.

There’s a scene near the beginning where Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the future King, has to give a speech at the British Empire Exhibition. As you see him preparing, you can’t help but feel anxious on his behalf. You know that this is going to be a tortuous experience. And then there are all the people who offer their stupid advice - ‘make the microphone do the work’. Yeah, that’ll cure my stammer, numbnuts. But it’s the little details that help sell the terror. We’re told that the speech is going to be transmitted across the world and that when a little red light next to the microphone stops flashing, the Prince will be speaking live to the world. My sphincter tightened a little bit on his behalf when the blinking light finally turned into a solid red.

The disaster of this experience has the future King seeking help from the best doctors in England. None of them are worth a damn and they make the Prince do humiliating things like stuff marbles in his mouth. Plus they say that smoking is good for a stammer - apparently it relaxes the throat.

When the Prince and his wife end up at the door of Lionel Logue, it’s a completely different experience. His offices are almost falling apart and he doesn’t have any staff. He seems to run a ramshackle operation. But unlike the other therapists, Logue doesn’t offer crazy solutions. He tries to go deeper into the problem - he doesn’t want to just solve the mechanics.

A lot of the enjoyment of the film is watching the battle between Logue and the Prince. Angry and obstinate, the future King doesn’t want to get to the root of his problem; he just wants his affliction gone. But Logue knows that the best way to help the Prince’s problem is to treat more than the surface issue. Of course, this doesn’t always go down well. The Prince doubtlessly sees Logue as an inferior. He shouldn’t have to open himself up to him - it’s silly and undignified.

The efforts to ease the stammer sometimes resemble a battle. However, it’s a battle that’s difficult to win as the Prince’s insecurity often gets in the way. For a long time he refuses to put himself entirely in Logue’s hands. The difference in their social standing is perhaps an easy get-out clause for the King. When things get too painful or too personal he can bring the walls smashing down without lifting a finger.

The Prince illustrates this in a scene where Logue and Albert go for a walk. Logue insists that one day Albert could be King. Logue then makes the mistake of touching the Prince’s arm. Angered by this treasonous talk and this over-familiarity, not to mention the horrifying prospect of him being King, the Prince lashes out by mocking Logue’s acting aspirations and taking the piss out of his poor, working class, colonial origins. The way that the scene is filmed is quite marvelous. As the future King storms off you see Logue in the background, rooted to the spot. As the Prince walks, Logue gets smaller and smaller. His spirits are crushed and with just a few words he’s been reduced to a speck. Just when he thought he was getting close to the Prince, he’s put back in his place.

There are some things about the film that don’t work as well as they could have. King Edward (Guy Pearce) and Wallis Simpson are pretty one-dimensional. They’re shallow party fiends that don’t really seem to have a brain cell between them. It also feels that Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) has been shoe-horned into the story because he’s a figure that everyone will recognise. Indeed, watching the film, it would be easy to miss the fact that he wasn’t the Prime Minister during the outbreak of World War Two. There has definitely been some simplification.

But simplification is often necessary in a biopic - there’s often too much detail to cram into a two hour film. The important thing is how good the core of the film is. And the core of The King’s Speech is definitely the friendship between the Prince and Logue.

There’s another great scene that occurs during the preparations for the coronation. The soon to be King confronts Logue with the fact that Logue is not a qualified doctor. Logue then points out that he never pretended to be - that the sign on his office lists him as Mister. He then points out all the soldiers that he treated for shell shock after the First World War. He speaks calmly and knowledgeably and with a complete lack of bullshit. He’s a man of experience and integrity - he’s the complete opposite of the Harvey Street quacks the King had dealt with previously. Logue will never lie or humiliate the King. He wants to meet the King on equal terms and help him solve his problem. It’s only near the end that that plea for equality is returned; that the men truly operate at the same level.

Watching this movie, you’d think the King’s first wartime speech was one of the most important events in World War Two. I say bullshit to that. If the King had stammered, little old England would have been fine. But such is the strength of the film, that the speech does indeed feel like a make or break situation. It feels like the fate of a nation is hanging on the King’s ability not to stammer. Again, like the beginning of the film, the tension is enormous.

I’d be lying if I said that the final speech wasn’t incredibly rousing. With anxious close-ups of the King and cutaways to civilians and troops, it feels like you’re walking a tightrope. If the King doesn’t stammer, we’ll have the strength to fight these Nazi bastards. If he does we’re probably going to capitulate. It’s a nonsense feeling but it’s still grimly effective. And when the King gets through the speech unscathed, it doesn’t matter that this event has been blown up into crazy proportions or that in reality the King had been speaking well since 1927 (with the help of Logue of course). You get swept up in the emotion of the piece. And of course, being an Englishman living abroad, I’m even more susceptible to the brand of patriotism contained in the film. I don’t believe in the monarchy but during this film I believed in the King.

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  1. ALL HAIL! Good review, it's probably the first review I've read on the King's Speech which points out the flaws. It's a near perfect film but i totally agree with you about the whole 'churchill throw in for the hell of it' thing.

    Just started out reviewing old films myself, check it out if you have a spare moment: