Last night I watched The King’s Speech. Expectations were high: my parents had recommended it in glowing terms, and the entire world is giving it awards. High expectations are a bad thing to have before going into a film, but even so my reaction to The King’s Speech was really, really weird.
The King’s Speech is a movie I watched for the first time as if I was watching it for the second time. What does that mean? It’s so technically perfect, so purposefully directed and acted and staged, that even though I was watching for the first time, I was enveloped in the details of the storytelling: how characters were lit, or the angles director Tom Hooper chose to deploy, or even the blocking. The King’s Speech is a film which evokes a great tradition of historical dramas, and because it is so deeply embedded in that tradition, it makes every image a symbolic cipher which both evokes our memories of earlier movies and signals our emotions with instructions on how to feel.
We get a sense of this in the first frames: the gigantic radio microphone, looming large, intimidating, cold, and alone. But the symbolism and craftsmanship are in evidence everywhere. The Duke and Duchess of York standing in a window, bathed in light, their silhouettes pitch-black against the sun. The Duke, humbled and unable to communicate before his speech therapist Lionel Logue, looking small and insignificant in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen, most of the image taken up by the plain red wall.
Symbols abound. There’s Logue himself auditioning for the part of the much-mocked, disfigured castoff Richard III, who seeks the crown as passionately as the much-mocked, (vocally) disfigured castoff George VI is afraid of it. And there’s Winston Churchill’s character, permanently scowling and with a cigar surgically attached to one hand.
When the Duke walks toward a microphone, notice that we see him in close-ups, the camera claustrophobically near his face, hand-held and jittery.Thus as he grows nervous, so we too grow nervous.
More tricks: When Logue’s wife meets the Queen, observe how subtly the cameras hide the two women from each other. When the soon-to-be King is practicing his oath at Westminster Abbey, the angle is crooked, so the floor slants. Why did they do that? Usually a slanted angle indicates a world in which all is not right: but of course, Bertie was being crowned into what would very quickly become World War II. (Another crooked shot can be seen in the first picture, above.)
Too often, I was distracted by my admiration for how the film pushed the right buttons. When the speech therapist walks into Westminster Abbey and his head is framed by the glorious windows, I thought, “Of course. They had to do that.” And the film’s triumph seems to come very easily. Of course everything will be inspiring if Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush, Timothy Spall, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, and Derek Jacobi are the brilliant all-star cast of profoundly intelligent actors with decades of experience, including between them rather more than a century of Shakespearean acting. Of course the movie will be beautiful filmed on such colorful sets, with cigarette smoke wisping in front of actors’ faces. Of course the climax will be emotionally rejuvenating if it’s the king, well, giving a speech.
The filmmakers evidently were not so confident on that last point, though. For, while Colin Firth delivers the climactic King’s Speech, Tom Hooper pipes in one of the two or three most eloquent speakers in the history of mankind: Beethoven. Yes, the Seventh Symphony underlines the whole speech, and then, as the King and his wife step out onto the balcony and greet the public (this montage is really the first time we see “the public”), we get more Beethoven, the “Emperor” piano concerto easing us into the credits. Composer Alexandre Desplat had the easiest job in the whole film, for the end credits switch off Beethoven and switch on… Mozart.
So, what’s the bottom line? The King’s Speech was mostly perfect. The Churchill performance was a bit hammy, but (1) how else do you play Churchill? (2) one has to admire Spall, an actor versatile enough to portray Winston Churchill and the sniveling half-rat Harry Potter character “Wormtail” in a single year.
Other than that, though, the acting is superb, the visual feel of the film is marvelous (but why does Helena Bonham Carter’s skin look like wallpaper paste?), the trio of lead actors deliver heroic performances (especially Carter, actually), and the ending of the film really is moving.
Based on all that, I should have liked The King’s Speech more. Is it not my kind of movie? Was I harmed by “seeing through” so many of the brilliant visual tricks, or by suspecting that the climax was more Beethoven than Firth? Was the effect like watching a magic trick and knowing how the trick works? Or am I immune to emotional appeals on behalf of a monarch who clearly didn’t want his job and only accepted it because an unnecessary institution had enslaved him over the course of his entire life with guilt and an overwhelming sense of duty which even he suspected was based on a fiction? I don’t know. But as much as I admired the film, I didn’t connect with it.
The King’s Speech is a “culmination movie.” It is the product of a rich tradition of a certain way – visual, auditory, theatrical – of making a film. It brings together an all-star cast of the actors and visual icons of that style, and those symbols – the use of Shakespeare, Mozart, certain camera angles, or class distinctions and titles – are our cues for how to respond to the film. Because it is a culmination film with a great story, great style, and great execution, The King’s Speech is a movie which will have a long tradition of being enjoyed and even loved, but it will rarely be enshrined by the barons of art criticism as a classic.
Of course, I could be wrong. They said the same thing about Casablanca.
P.S. In its review, The Economist noted the class dialogue in the film by pointing out that at the very climax, and not before, Aussie speech therapist Lionel Logue finally capitulates and calls the King “your majesty.” In the magazine’s words: “The message is thumpingly clear: only once the king has shown he is Logue’s equal in humanity has he earned the Australian’s reverence. Triumphantly swelling chords give the game away.”
This is, in fact, false. There are no triumphantly swelling chords. The crucial moment takes place immediately after Beethoven’s Seventh has finished, and several minutes before Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto commences, which in fact makes it all the more important that at this crucial moment the emotional cue to us, the viewers, stems not from “swelling chords” but from the fact that there is no music at all! Absence of chords can be as important a cue as presence.