Every year when the Academy Awards have been given out, I look over the winners in each category, and more often than not I scratch my head at the ultimate winners. I find myself wondering if they saw the same movie I saw. I start to ponder if there might be an alternate-universe version of these movies that somehow find themselves in the hands of the Academy jury. Sure, once in a while they get it right. Films like The Godfather, Gladiator and Unforgiven manage to fight off the competition and claim their earned statues. Most times, however, I find that a trend of political correctness enters the picture more than the quality of the films or actors themselves. It’s the only way I can explain Sean Penn taking a statue over Mickey Rourke a couple years back. Films and actors are rewarded to showing the proper political philosophy. So, when I heard that The King’s Speech won the award this year, I began to fear the same circumstances had once again prevailed. I hadn’t seen the film, but the subject matter appeared to qualify. I considered it another undeserved Oscar given to an ambitious Hollywood crowd brown nose. Then I saw the film through this Fox Blu-ray release. It might not happen often, at least no more that a dozen times a day, but boy was I wrong about The King’s Speech. This really was one of the best films not only of this last year but in quite a long time.
The Duke of York (Firth) has a serious speech impediment. He stammers, which isn’t the most confidence-inspiring trait for a member of the royal family to have. In the past the problem likely would not have become an issue. But the invention of radio has made it essential for the members of the royal family to speak to the nation and the world. With the help of his extremely devoted wife Elizabeth (Carter), he has seen all manner of specialists both of sound scientific principle and the whack-job varieties. Nothing works. Elizabeth hears of an unconventional therapist who has a rather impressive track record. When she visits Lionel Logue (Rush) for the first time under an assumed name, she finds him a bit arrogant and unwilling to bend his rules, even for the Duke of York. Still, they decide to give the man a try. At first it appears as though this was merely another in a long string of failed attempts to help the Duke. He leaves as frustrated as he had ever been. It didn’t help that the obstinate man insisted on calling him by the too-familiar name of Bertie, reserved only for close family. He treated the Duke like a child. The Duke exited holding a record made of an attempt to speak with blaring music in his ears. He decided he didn’t need to hear the recording and suffer the usual humiliation.
Later, Bertie does listen, and he discovers that he was able to read a passage from Shakespeare with impressive improvement without even any treatment. Bertie returns to Lionel and the two begin the important work. They also become rather close friends with the ups and downs such a relationship carries with it. And then the unthinkable happens. His brother Edward (Pearce) abdicates the throne to be with his common and married Wallis Simpson (Best). Now Bertie, as King George VI, is thrust on an international stage as England braces for World War II. With the help of Lionel he is able to overcome his impediment enough to provide much-needed inspiration and comfort for his subjects.
This is really one of those stories from history that has gotten little attention over the years. Certainly, there were bigger things going on at the time, and the Royal Family likely attempted to keep the sessions, if not a secret, at least out of common knowledge. The two would remain friends their entire lives with Lionel standing by for every war-time speech the King made. It’s amazing the subject hasn’t found its way in film before. We love underdog stories of people overcoming their limitations to do great things. It’s the kind of story that appears ready-made for the silver screen. Fortunately, the tale waited long enough to make its way into the capable hands of director Tom Hooper. Hooper is no stranger to historic drama. He directed a mini-series on Elizabeth I and was the genius behind HBO’s amazing mini-series on John Adams. He brings the same authenticity and powerful cast to The King’s Speech.
The film earned a huge 12 nominations for Academy Awards and won 4 of them. The film took the coveted Best Picture award along with awards for directing and screenwriting. Colin Firth took a deserved statue for Best Actor. Both Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter were nominated for their performances. It’s a shame only one of them went away with the win. The real magic in this film is the performances.
Tom Hooper knows how to cast a film and then use all of the elements of production design, costuming and set design to give his performers the best possible environment to unleash their talent. And while all of these elements were quite impressive, it was the three primary actors that have made this a truly memorable film to see. Rush sheds all the visages of the bombastic and evil Captain Barbossa and brings you down to Earth with the character of Lionel. He comes across as a man who has allowed his passion to make up for his lack of training. You do get the impression that he believes in everything he’s doing here. The dialog was at times based on actual excerpts from the man’s diaries of the time, recently found by his grandson. I’ve never really been all that impressed with the actor in the past, but there’s no question he hits this one out of the park. It would have been so easy to go overboard with the stammer and to turn a sympathetic character into something of a buffoon. Firth always seems to know exactly where that line lies and dances around it at times without ever going too far. It’s a very convincing portrayal. Finally, it’s a joy to see Helena Bonham Carter step out of the usual dark roles she’s most noted for and excel at something so mundane in comparison. You’d think that it might have bored her to tears. But she moves headlong into the part, showing Elizabeth’s devotion with wonderful precision. She adds just a bit of that dark wit to full round out the character. The three share wonderful chemistry, and it all makes for a compelling movie that moves along with a perfect pace and atmosphere.
Among the plethora of temptations resisted is the way the story plays out. I’m sure some of the sessions are physically exaggerated, and I’ll admit they stray closest to that line of believability. But the filmmakers resist the temptation to fall into the most obvious trap of all. Bertie does indeed overcome his demons, but it’s never a complete recovery. The final speech is both moving and powerful, but it continues to be a struggle and is far from perfection. The film could have lost all of its credibility had Bertie experienced a miracle cure that leads to a perfectly-enunciated delivery. We know better, and so do Hooper and Firth. We get the idea that speaking will always be somewhat of a struggle for Bertie and that his accomplishment comes at not banishing his demon, but holding it at bay just well enough to fulfill the role history had thrust upon him. Anything more would have been a serious breach of our trust and a cheat. So, you’ll find The King’s Speech excels as much for what is not there than for anything that is. It’s as close to a perfect movie as it gets.
The King’s Speech is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, slightly modified from its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at a very respectable average 35-40 mbps. The high-definition image absolutely plays toward the colder aspect of its colors. There is a blue pale that dominates much of the picture. In contrast, however, the colors tend to warm in the sessions between Lionel and Bertie. The rather desaturated look lends atmosphere to the film as a period piece. The film doesn’t really push the level of sharpness as far as we’re becoming used to. Detail is fine, but this doesn’t look like a newer film at all. The grain and softness of the image is appropriate here and goes a long way to make the image look more alive. Black levels might be only slightly above average, but the picture tends to look more realistic because of the intentional limitations which aren’t really limitations at all.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is quite natural. I am impressed with how well the sound demonstrates the texture of the space. There is careful sound design detail here. Someone took great pains to make sure it all sounded like it was coming from the places you were watching. Lionel’s studio has a lot of bare wood that causes echo and highs to be accented. The feedback and echo from the radio microphone at the sports arena captures that environment brilliantly. Intimate settings come through the best with a wonderful muted softness that immerses you at all times throughout the production. A film about a character’s speech must have strong dialog levels, and this one certainly does. The score never intrudes but instead acts like a painting’s frame to support the emotional level of the film itself.
There is an Audio Commentary with Tom Hooper. He’s obviously proud of the film and is generous with the credit. He addresses the removed vulgarities from the PG-13 version of the film. He’s obviously quite pleased to have them restored here.
An Inspirational Story Of An Unlikely Friendship: (23:01) SD This is a promotional piece with too many film clips and a trailer-style narration. Cast and crew offer some interesting insights on the characters both real and on-screen.
Q&A With The Director And Cast: (22:02) Most of the cast gather on a stage, presumably before or after a screening of the film to answer questions. Firth and Carter do most of the talking. Rush is missing. I suspect he was filming the next Pirates film during the event.
Speeches From The Real King George VI: There is an audio-only recording of the 1939 pre-war speech that is the climax of the film. There is also a newsreel of a 1945 speech.
I can promise you that The King’s Speech will be unlike any movie you’ve seen in quite a while. It’s a drama that sucks you in so far that you leave feeling you’ve experienced and met these characters. The film was only released in a small run of theaters at first. I suspect there was some notion that it was too much of an art film to really do much at a wide box office. Those early numbers were enough to convince someone otherwise, but it was out for 10 weeks before it was given a full wide release. It managed to pull in about $138 million with a $15 million budget. It may not have appeared to be a mass audience film at first, but with numbers like that, “That makes it official”.