Maybe the biggest irony about The King’s Speech is that behind what its makers call “an inspirational story of an unlikely friendship” lies an acrimonious and bitter fallout between two of Hollywood’s fiercest alpha whales. Three years back, producers Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein came to metaphorical blows over which Kate Winslet movie – The Reader, exec-produced by Harvey and his brother Bob, or Rudin’s effort Revolutionary Road – had the best chance of Oscar glory.
Weinstein won that one, and he bested Rudin again this year when The King’s Speech collected four Golden Baldies to The Social Network’s three. “I was elated, absolutely jumping for joy,” Harvey admitted later, no doubt imagining his size 10s landing repeatedly on his Tinseltown rival’s face.
Yet as recently as January the shoe was on the other foot, The Social Network having picked up four Golden Globes to The King’s Speech’s paltry one. In the two short months between gong giving’s, how did the latter contrive to pull ahead?
Colin Firth obviously played a part, the British star embarking on a relentless transatlantic charm offensive that saw him practically anointed as this year’s best actor in waiting. With hindsight, though, it’s clear that the Weinsteins had a better reading of the Academy’s collective mindset, correctly seeing that a timeless chronicle of triumph over adversity was more suited to the conservative tastes of its ageing membership than a contemporary saga about computerloving back-stabbing geeks.
“A lot of people said this movie or that movie is younger, hipper, cooler and socially relevant,” shrugs Harvey. “But you have to say the timelessness of a classic movie conquers all, and that was what we wanted to get across.” Throw in a healthy slice of bromance, lashings of period finery and our endless fascination with Britain’s first family (the impending nuptials between Prince William and Kate Middleton surely helped the cause) and the events of 27 February start to resemble a foregone conclusion.
But that all the hype and hoopla has died down, is The King’s Speech really all that? Or did it simply serve a purpose, hoovering up accolades in a way guaranteed to make us feel better about our status as plucky global underdog? It is telling that it took a bullish American champion to steer Tom Hooper’s modestly budgeted Britflick to international recognition.
And it surely didn’t hurt that Speech reinforces certain reassuring clichés about this sceptred isle: that we’re all a bunch of bowler-hatted toffs, for example, crippled by our English reserve and stiff upper lips. After all, what is Firth’s George VI if not another emotionally constipated Hugh Grant figure, stymied by politesse and the dread fear of social embarrassment? And what is Geoffrey Rush’s speech therapist Lionel Logue if not a pompositypricking antidote – a symbolic Australian laxative that allows him to expel the regal ramrod he has stuck up his rectum?
In the Making Of, Hooper admits it could have easily ended up as “Crocodile Dundee meets the King of England”. (Call that a stammer? That’s a stammer!) Yet you only have to look at the tears Logue’s grandson Mark sheds in an accompanying featurette on Lionel’s personal diaries to see this is more than some classy parable about princes and paupers. The reason why we cheer when George delivers the titular address at the onset of WW2 isn’t because he’s a royal bolstering his subjects at a time of national need.
It is because he’s just a bloke, conquering an affliction with the help of another bloke. Chances are we have all been on both sides of that equation at one time or another. The only difference is we didn’t have a palace to go back to when we were done, or a devoted consort in the vein of Helena Bonham Carter’s quietly indomitable Queen Mum-to-be.
Bonham Carter’s performance, along with those of Firth, Rush and the actor knights (Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi) offering sterling if flamboyant support as, respectively, King George V and Archbishop Cosmo Lang, ensure Speech is quite the thespian showcase. At seven years Colin’s junior, though, Guy Pearce is a rather odd choice for George’s callow older brother Edward (and not only because of the occasional Down Under inflections that invade his speech), while Timothy Spall’s Churchill is a caricature so broad it makes Spitting Image look restrained.
This is not, in short, a flawless work. Yet it is a very witty one, David Seidler’s script crackling with enough sparkling one-liners and pithy bon mots to suggest this 73-year-old veteran has a great future ahead of him. A director’s commentary (unavailable at press time) augments a solid package further enhanced by archive footage of the real King George in painfully halting action. What might have been instructive, though, is some insight into why the abdication crisis has suddenly become the hot topic du jour. Earlier this year, Edward and Mrs Simpson had roles in Channel 4’s Any Human Heart, and they’ll soon return in Madonna’s W.E. Could this have anything to do with our lack of love for Charles and a desire for Wills to inherit when Liz finally pops her clogs?
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