After rave reactions on the festival circuit The King’s Speech finally opens in the UK today and the story of how it came to the screen is a fascinating one.
The film traces the relationship between Prince Albert (Colin Firth) and an unconventional speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who helped him overcome a crippling stammer as he eventually assumed the throne – as George VI – and helped rally his people during World War II.
Directed by Tom Hooper, it is a superbly crafted period piece but also a genuine crowd pleaser with surprising levels of humour and emotion.
Already a frontrunner for the Oscars, Colin Firth follows up his performance in A Single Man with another reminder of how good he can be in the right role, whilst Rush is equally good as the man who helps him.
This is the kind of film that might appear on the surface to be another British costume drama beloved of middle class, Telegraph reading audiences but it is actually much more than that.
By exploring the pain and anguish behind the King’s stutter, it is not only a surprisingly emotional film but also a sneakily subversive one.
Not only does it allows us to see how Logue’s irreverent treatment stripped the ultimate aristocrat of his social hang ups, but how two people from different backgrounds eventually became friends.
But the story behind the film is equally fascinating, involving a veteran screenwriter with a stutter and the late Queen Mother.
“You carry it within you for a long time. I’m still a stutterer, but I’ve learned all the tricks so that you don’t hear it”
It was over thirty years ago that he first started work on a script for what would eventually become The King’s Speech and in his research the enigmatic figure of Lionel Logue kept cropping up.
Even years after the King had died, Logue was still a figure of whom little was known as the issue was still a painful one for the royal family and, in particular, the Queen Mother.
After some detective work Seidler eventually tracked down Dr Valentine Logue, a son of Lionel who was now a retired Harley Street brain surgeon.
In 1981 they met in London and Logue Jnr showed the screenwriter the notebooks his father had kept while treating the monarch.
However, Logue wouldn’t do the film unless the writer secured written permission from the Queen Mother. After writing to Clarence House, he received the following request:
‘Please, Mr Seidler, not during my lifetime, the memory of those events is still too painful.’
It wasn’t until 2002 that the Queen Mother passed away at the age of 101 and in 2005 Seidler struggled with a bout of throat cancer.
As part of his recovery he resumed work on his script for The King’s Speech and after an early draft decided to turn it into a stage play in order to focus on the characters.
It was eventually picked up by Bedlam Productions, who optioned it and then joined forces with See-Saw Films who felt that a film project could work.
Geoffrey Rush became attached early on and a staged reading of the play in Islington, North London was seen by the parents of a British director named Tom Hooper, who was then filming the HBO mini-series John Adams.
After being sent the script, and persuaded by his Australian mother that it was really good, he eventually got around to reading it and was keen to direct it as a film, which like John Adams, explores them interior lives of famous historical figures.
When Colin Firth came on board, the production – after nearly 30 years – was finally going to happen.
Weeks before filming began, Hooper and the production team got their hands on Logue’s original diaries which informed the sequences between Rush and Firth.
After filming in the UK last year it got its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in early September where it got a rave reaction from the audience and was immediately talked of as an Oscar contender.
A week later at the Toronto Film Festival it got similar reactions, winning the Audience Award, and for Seidler it was an emotional moment:
“I was overwhelmed because for the first time ever, the penny dropped and I felt I had a voice and had been heard. For a stutterer, it’s a profound moment”.
The King’s Speech opens in the UK today and is currently out in the US
A superbly crafted period drama about the relationship between King George VI and his speech therapist provides a memorable showcase for its two lead actors.
Beginning in 1925, the film traces how with Prince Albert (Colin Firth), The Duke of York, enlisted the help of an unconventional speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who helped him overcome a crippling stammer as he eventually assumed the throne and helped rally his people during World War II.
The bulk of the film explores the relationship between the stiff, insecure monarch and the charmingly straightforward Logue, his loving and supportive wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter) and the royal relatives who may have contributed to his problem.
Having spent his life in the shadow of his domineering father, George V (Michael Gambon), the shy Albert struggles with the responsibility of assuming the throne when his headstrong brother, Edward (Guy Pearce), decides to abdicate.
The screenplay by David Seidler deftly weaves these domestic tensions with the wider drama of the challenges of speaking in public, as the development of radio and newsreels create new expectations and pressures.
It is to director Tom Hooper’s credit that he keeps focused on the relationships at the heart of the film and steers well clear of the ponderous self importance that can afflict British period dramas.
Much of the appeal lies in the culture clash between Lionel and Albert: the Australian-born failed actor and the heir to the throne make for an amusing odd couple, but the connection they gradually form over the years is believable and touching.
Their sequences provide an impressive showcase for the two lead actors: Firth convincingly depicts the underlying frustration and pain of someone suffering a stammer, whilst Rush is delightfully irreverent as the one person who can engage him.
Firth seems to have been re-energised by his work in last year’s A Single Man.
Although this role might seem like a return to the repressed English gentleman he was often typecast as, he brings real nuance and feeling to the role, which could have easily slipped into cliched bluster.
Rush is magnetic as an eccentric whose wit and empathy gradually erode the aristocratic barriers blocking his patient.
Combined, their chemistry is a joy to watch as they depict the social hangups of the British class system as they gradually form a deep bond.
In supporting roles the standouts are Bonham-Carter, who is pleasingly restrained and dead-pan; Michael Gambon as an imposing George V; Guy Pearce as the smarmy Edward and Jennifer Ehle as Lionel’s loving wife.
Hooper demonstrated with his work on HBO’s John Adams that he has a great eye for period detail and the interior lives of historical figures: he achieves the same level of intimacy here with the main characters and crafts a believable recreation of the era.
Danny Cohen’s camera work is a key part of this, artfully framing the characters with a wide lens, whilst also using a Steadicam to give certain sequences an intriguingly fluid feel for a period piece.
The technical contributions across the board are excellent: Tariq Anwar’s crisp editing keeps things moving smoothly; Eve Stewart’s production design is richly detailed and the costumes by Jenny Beaven are first rate. (The only slight lapse is some CGI work near the end).
‘Crowd-pleaser’ is a term that can often signify something sentimental, but The King’s Speech is likely to give a lot of pleasure to audiences across a wide spectrum.
An astutely observed social comedy, it also has great depth as a drama, beginning and ending with sequences of considerable weight and tension.
The film has already proved a hit on the festival circuit this year and it is very hard to see audiences and Oscar voters resisting its classy blend of history, humour and emotion.
The King’s Speech premieres at the London Film Festival tonight and screens on Friday 23rd and Saturday 24th. It opens in the UK on January 7th 2011.