When we last saw Colin Firth, he was leading Tom Ford’s A Single Man in a quiet daring role. He returns this year with a stuttering problem, in this nice film that doesn’t quite deserve the level of clamor it’s receiving.
Firth plays King George VI, better known as stuttering “Bertie” to his family. As a member of the Royal family, he causes a ten-car pileup when he has to stand up before a crowd of people and say a few words – which is why his wife Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) seeks every possible speech therapy to help her man. Enter Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Aussie who combines physical and psychological therapy to untie tongues. These methods ruffle the King’s feathers since Logue is a mere peasant who has no right to, you know, befriend a king.
The performances are strong, and the rapport Firth and Rush develop between their characters is warm and believable. The cinematography seems to hint at the cold hands of World War II creeping into every frame, and the production design (as is for most Royalty-related period pieces) adds pop to the overall composition.
One of the strange formalistic qualities to the film, however, is its rebellion against standard framing practices. Normally when you have two people speaking to each other in film, they will be framed on opposite sides of the image, so when you run them together it tricks your eyes into thinking they are occupying the same space. This also means you have to match eyelines between the two people speaking to each other. Person A on the left of the frame will look to the right, where Person B, on the right, will be looking to the left. For The King’s Speech however Person A on the left will look left and Person B on the right will look right. What results is a lack of “breathing space,” the space between the person’s gaze and where film cuts off their vision. As Rush and Firth speak to one another they are often touching their nose to the edge of the screen with a whole lot of vacant, unused space behind them. Even if you aren’t looking for it, you’ll feel the awkwardness.
If you throw together key story ingredients for a film (at least for U.S. audiences) it seems it will be a critical and audience darling: Royalty, British accents, “Based on a True Story,” World War II, and a dash Hitler. Our country’s penchant for familiar cinematic elements is satisfied and it assuages class guilt to see king and commoner connect.
Which rounds out the film as nice, a story which doesn’t try anything new, doesn’t risk doing something daring, and will therefore not ruffle any audience feathers.
True, there isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with a nice film.
I focus on niceness in reaction to the tenor of the praise The King’s Speech is receiving. It’s good, but not exquisite. I’m Still Here or Winter’s Bone would fit that bill, but they’ve quietly fallen into the background as award season approaches since they don’t follow formulas. They dare to do something different. They aren’t nice.*
So I beseech: beware of the hype train for The King’s Speech. If you’re looking for something more risky, there are plenty of other options.
*Thankfully Black Swan has maintained a strong critical and audience interest. I would recommend it over The King’s Speech despite my issues with the film.