The worst aspect of The King’s Speech’s dominance over its competitors at this year’s Academy Awards wasn’t that it was one of the weaker nominees, or that it ensured that we were in for another decade of Harvey Weinstein’s meddling, at the very least. Above even these worthy points of contention, the true problem was something else: Yet again, a perfectly enjoyable, utterly irrelevant film suddenly had relevance thrust on it, and mediocrity, no matter how pleasant, was once again being treated as something worth striving for, even something worth rewarding. Something I had liked just fine the other day now took on a more odious form, not necessarily because it had to be re-released with a few curse words edited out for even wider consumption, but because it was now the face of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s stiff, hypocritical sense of classicism. Their fallibility was now (unfairly) the film’s fallibility and Tom Hooper, his cast, and David Seidel’s script were all implicit in decades of studio-approved pandering.
Among these facets, Seidel’s script was rightly singled out as particularly endemic of popular cinema’s tendency to simplify and soften the intensely complicated, and redeploy history as outright fantasy. As reported with wit and just displeasure by Christopher Hitchens, Hooper’s film disregarded many of the British monarchy’s ties to Hitler, to say nothing of Chamberlain and Churchill’s relationships with Germany and the Nazi party. In the film, the Fuhrer is seen once, on a newsreel projected privately for the Royal family, but he’s talked about constantly and is at least partially the reason why it becomes a dire need for Prince Albert (Colin Firth) to shake the terrible stammer he’s had since youth, so that he might ennoble, exhilarate, and above all else comfort his public. His father (Michael Gambon) blames the radio (“We’ve become actors,” he sighs with great grief and disdain) for new political stresses, but blames his son directly for his particular impediment. As for his brother, the soon-to-be King Edward VIII (a terrific Guy Pierce), he uses the impediment to belittle his younger brother’s greater intellect and moral standings, a practice that comes in handy while Edward woos an American divorcee with ties to and flirtations with the Third Reich.
Prince Albert’s wife (Helena Bonham Carter), however, has a far more positive, productive mindset and after dozens of specialists, sets up a meeting between her husband and an odd Australian ex-pat named Lionel Logue, played with reliable gusto by the great Geoffrey Rush. Himself an amateur actor, Lionel’s methods include a series of exercises in mental gymnastics, verbal trickery, and physical motion, but also includes an essential stripping of the prince’s ego. Referring to him as “Bertie” (a family nickname) and forbidding him to smoke in his presence, Lionel works his methods, but he also predictably becomes a great friend of the monarch, instilling the soon-to-be King George VI with a commoner’s humility and humor and driving an increasingly irksome wedge between the prince and his patriarchal monarchy. Indeed, propriety and familial relations are dark issues in Hooper’s film, whereas the people and prime ministers are seen as open, accepting, and even forgiving.
The politics of The King’s Speech are nice and easy, which befits the classical entertainment from which they derive from, but the film’s consistent obliviousness toward the realities of its setting and time period shortchanges a deeply fascinating chapter in the history of the monarchy. The idea of the crippling stutter as an outcome of the utter bedlam of the throne and the country in transition is a smart tool, one that would have been all the more powerful among the lacerating infighting and international struggles that the monarchy endured as they moved into World War II. Seidel and Hooper’s shared attitude toward the symbiotic relationship between the crown and the Anglican Communion, represented by Archbishop Cosmo Lang (Derek Jacobi), is just as slight and does further disservice by helping spur what a close friend aptly called the film’s She’s All That moment, in which Logue is confronted by the prince about his falsified credentials and other harmless lies.
Ironically, the third act, with its cathartic asides and climactic recitation, is the least dramatically compelling section of the film, predictably trotting toward a triumphant wave from the balcony with Logue and Churchill looking proudly upon their pupil. Firth handles the part well and seems to really come alive when he’s sparring in-session with Rush. It’s one of the few roles that showcase Firth’s physicality, and he gets some genuine laughs from all the rhythmic cussing that Logue’s methods insist on. There are generally very fine performances here, along with excellent production design by Eve Stewart and strong camerawork by Danny Cohen, but they are in the service of a cowardly film that risks no offence and reaps the empty rewards of time-tested narrative turns. The Social Network was, at heart, a familiar tale, albeit one rejuvenated by relevancy and a bold narrative structure, and this is partially why this year was such a close Oscar race. Neither narrative is particularly groundbreaking, but The Social Network represented a progression that we still aren’t completely okay with, only the least important facet of which was its use of the RED camera. There are essentially no enemies in The Social Network, only the demons that rest within us that we cannot fully harness, whereas The King’s Speech offered us the catharsis of facing our two favorite enemies: our families and the Nazis.
The only truly negligible problem with this 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is the flatness and muddled color of the image, which is more Tom Hooper's department. Despite this, the transfer handles the image very well with excellent detailing regarding skin tones, regal clothing, and the degrading walls in Lionel's office. There's a soft haze to the film, not to mention a few instances of banding and crushing, but I can't say that I was ever fully distracted by any of these problems. Serviceability is the name of the game with the image and the audio follows suit. Dialogue is handled beautifully, out front with a great balance of Alexandre Desplat's score and the minimal atmosphere noise. It's a rather simple sound design, but the handling of the audio pays off during the in-session scenes and the climactic sequence.
On the commentary track, director Tom Hooper sounds like he's genuinely excited about the production of The King's Speech and his stories about the film's characters, actors, and reception are funny and obviously remembered with great fondness. It's not the most insightful commentary, but it's totally enjoyable, exactly like the film itself. The making-of featurette from HBO is largely a snooze, and that goes double for the Q&A sessions that were done with the director and most of the main cast. But the real speeches that King George VI made are the real delicacy here, if only because they are the most honest and sincere words spoken on the entire disc. A short featurette on the real Lionel Logue is included as well.
As pseudo-highbrow entertainments go, The King's Speech is slightly north of enjoyable, a situation that its passable Blu-ray's set of historically minded extras fails to help.