I'll be frank: there's really not much negative to be said about The King's Speech, Tom Hooper's biopic about the stammer-laden King George VI in pre-WWII England. Those who've seen the director's historical portraits The Damned United and HBO's miniseries John Adams will attest to his skill in recreating time periods with flair, both in composition and punchy performances from his leads. His talent feeds well into this clear-cut story of royalty confronting a debilitating condition to better his presence in the public's eye, which depicts this historical against-the-odds tale with a clear head and a concise eye, engineered to be an award contender through a level of polish that's hard to overlook. Even if David Seidler's witty and perceptive script falls into the trappings of straightforward dramatization that lead to a foreseeable catharsis, as one would expect, it's the performances that elevate this roaring crowd-pleaser -- and elevate they undoubtedly do.
Colin Firth plays Albert, the Duke of York, a noble but stubborn son of the royal family who locks up in agonizing stutters when speaking publicly. And, for that matter, privately. Nerves, an actual impediment, or a combination of both might be to blame, though he's visited countless upper-crust specialists who implement varying (at times archaic) techniques to no avail. While he's suffered this from an early age, circumstances surrounding George V's kingship and health have deemed it necessary for Albert to "prepare" for worst-case circumstances, lighting a somewhat desperate and tongue-tied fire under the urgency to fix his weakness. In a desperate effort, his wife (played sublimely by Helena Bonham-Carter) visits a well-regarded Australian ex-actor turned speech coach, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), to see if he'd be able to help with the potential king of England. He accepts, of course, more so than "Bertie".
The playful but potent mental struggle between Bertie and Lionel becomes the epicenter to The King's Speech's expressive streak, taking us into the process of a stately prince reluctantly surrendering his authority to a common man determined to fix his impediment. Taking place in the instructor's office -- a rustic and echoic space with rough wood and wallpaper textures abound -- Lionel must maintain a level of dominion over his patients, achieved only by evening the playing field between him and his subject. For Bertie, that's a tough endeavor; he's a twitchy, self-doubting man with his claws dug deep into his royal heritage and poise, out of both pride for what he represents and insecurity over his worth outside his lineage. But Lionel's determination makes him up to the task of dragging Bertie kicking-and-screaming through unconventional exercises, from sternum-strengthening and tongue-twisters to finding comfort and confidence in barking aloud explicative-adorned (and often funny) diatribes.
The King's Speech relies on its performances, there's no doubting that, and thankfully there's a pair of exquisite turns that shape this low-key historical account of a speech coach and his stately subject into a true spectacle. Colin Firth aptly handles the decorous trimmings of Prince Albert, where he creates an absorbing presence about the future king that melds perception of his royal stature with a vulnerable deconstruction of the wall that separates him from Lionel -- and from the commoners he sees on the streets. The look in Firth's eyes, his composure during the stammers, and the way his body communicates insecurity, compassion and deep-rooted discomfort remains gripping throughout. Even more impressive, however, is Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue. Rush handles a fused stretch of emotions as Logue, from a tack-sharp sense of humor to his confident exertion as an authority over Bertie, and his unassailable presence actually drives the film through a charismatic insistence on humanizing the prince.
Watching how Prince Albert slowly grabs hold of his issues -- both his stammering and the reasons behind his stammering -- gives The King's Speech an enriching tone driven by conquering adversity, which Tom Hooper composes in a safe but eloquent cinematic style. He employs Pirate Radio cinematographer Danny Cohen to lend the film his eye for intimate skewed angles and cool palette choices, which adds richness to the graceful motion during the sessions through tight close-ups and full-body expository shots. Alexandre Desplat's beautifully-inspired classical score bolsters their movement, guiding simple scenes of Lionel's off-and-on success in hammering out Bertie's fumbles with a level of grace that simply makes them delightful to watch. In fact, from the steady editing style and blunt accents to the costume work, there's not a stitch out of place in Hooper's simple but sturdy construction.
As it moves through foreseeable moments that adorn similar inspirational stories -- some dictated by the history around Albert and his relationship with his reckless-but-confident brother Edward (Guy Pearce), others by the script's well-worn structure -- The King's Speech strives for a dignified balance between cordiality and emotional zeal, and it achieves as such with every meticulously-crafted scene. What comes out of this biopic fits the very mold of rousing likability while adhering to its historical focus, much like John Adams, inching towards the final scene that befit the film's title: George VI's essential address to the public at the start of WWII. The peaks and valleys that Tom Hooper orchestrate all lead to that moment, and it's quite the crowd-pleasing payoff to Bertie's tongue-tied ascension -- a climax that, though obviously engineered to spark that motivating stir, still achieves its aims without trying too hard to do so.
Fret not, dear readers: Anchor Bay and The Weinstein Company have decided to include only the R-rated cut of The King's Speech on Blu-ray, running at 1:58:29 and keeping the (in my opinion) essential F-bombs and such intact. No other language option or anything has been made available here, but, in all honesty, the lewd language used is a) not egregious enough to avoid for any reason, and b) enriches the point of that sequence.
Video and Audio:
Danny Cohen's cinematography for The King's Speech arrives framed at 1.78:1, opened up a bit from the 1.85:1 aspect ratio for this 1080p AVC encode from Anchor Bay. The color scheme leans towards cool teals and semi-warm tans, reaching intriguing depths during some of the darker speech-training sequences -- shades in deep wood grain, the subtle tinge of yellows and greens in Logue's wallpaper, and the fluctuations of grayish-blue in suits and coats. The contrast rarely gets much darker than a low-riding gray, sporting heavier grain in near-black spots when it does, but the gradation of the color scheme looks quite appropriate with the picture's theatrical aims. Fine detail in the webbing of microphones and in some of the costume work shows off the disc's competent awareness of slight, soft textures, while close-ups grasp hold of a few nice textures and color differentiations in flush skin tones. Overall, detail could be stronger and the heaviness of grain in dark scenes can be obtrusive, but it's a nice-looking presentation of the film nevertheless.
An English 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track preserves the central sound elements to The King's Speech, namely Alexandre Desplat's graceful score and the dialogue bouncing off the walls in Logue's studio/office. The range of vocal tones -- from Geoffrey Rush's deeper rumble to Firth's baritone lightness and Helena Bonham-Carter's mid-alto richness -- sounds well-pitched and aware of the spatial environments in which they speak, while the distortion during heavy microphone sequences carries over with a clear balance between the twinge of metallic static and audibility. Desplat's score always sounds fantastic as it becomes one of the few elements to reach the rear channels throughout the duration of the film, alongside a few echos during Albert's early speech. The sound of a plane propeller sharply putters through the front-end speakers, expanding slightly to the rears as the perspective changes to the pilot, while the taps of a typewriter clank and thump clearly. Everything sounds rather clear and balanced here, with no hints of distortion to be heard. English SDH and Spanish subtitles can be matched with the English Master Audio track.
Audio Commentary with Tom Hooper:
Hooper gets his hands dirty with this insightful an energetic commentary, even if his vocal volume stays low-key. He talks about minimalizing Colin Firth's stature to get him closer to Bertie's actual presence, refers to Team American of all things in regards to the training montage in the film (as well as the song he sung to his crew), battling the elements in early January 2010 to capture the exterior shots, and Cohen using wide lenses to capture some great shots in Logue's "workshop". It also reveals how David Seidler pulled from personal experience in constructing the ... erm, explicative-heavy sequence in the film, and how he found the flow of cursing liberating. It's a rather nice and insightful commentary that keeps its rhythm well throughout the track -- and yes, he does talk a little bit about the vulgarities in the sequence trimmed for the PG-13 rated re-release.
The King's Speech: An Inspirational Story of an Unlikely Friendship (23:10, MPEG-2):
A thoroughly generic behind-the-scenes feature, this piece ratchets through plot-and-character expository interviews and snips from the film itself. They discuss a bit of King George VI's history, while also dropping in a few off-screen bursts. Director Hooper enthusiastically talks about his actors and their capable talents, and vice versa from the actors about Hooper's steady directorial hand. No matter the content, I always enjoy listening to Geoffrey Rush talk about his craft, and he pops up plenty. It moves briskly and mentions a few things about production design and costumes, not to mention Cohen's eye for interesting perspectives and lighting, but it's fairly surface-level.
Q & A With Director and Cast (22:02, HD AVC):
Matt Holzman of KCRW moderates this discussion with the cast and crew of The King's Speech, lacking only Geoffrey Rush in the discussion. It's a good talk, about on the caliber as the commentary, where the content digs deeper than the stock interview fluff that adorns the press-kit fluff of other features.
Anchor Bay have also included some Speeches from the Real King George VI, including his Pre-War Speech (9/3/1939; 5:40 Audio) and the Post-War Speech (5/14/1945; 2:28, 4x3 MPEG-2), an interview with grandson and author Mark Logue entitled The Real Lionel Logue (10:34, SD MPEG-2), and a Public Service Announcement from The Stuttering Foundation (1:02, SD MPEG-2). No trailer has been included with the feature, unfortunately.
Tom Hooper does fine work with The King's Speech, a classically-structured but effective biopic that tells the heartening story of King George VI's triumph over his crippling speech impediment. Assured production polish, Danny Cohen's graceful photographic eye, and a sublime score from Alexandre Desplat give it a pleasant Merchant Ivory-esque opulence, but it's the performances from Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush -- along with a solid, varied supporting cast -- that evelate it to something worthy of its award accolades. It proves to be the ideal setting for everything to melt together into a strong and satisfying piece of dramatic filmmaking, while dipping into the historical essence of its inspiring, humorous, and heartfelt recount. Anchor Bay's disc looks and sounds quite good, with the inclusion of a commentary track, a nice Q&A, and some archival audio and video files of George VI himself to nudge this towards a very High Recommendation.