Anchor Bay // 2010 // 119 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // April 14th, 2011
Find your voice.
When we think of genre, the first thing that comes to mind is generally something like the Western, the sci-fi film, or maybe even a romantic comedy. We also often think of certain films as being "genre-less" -- the serious dramatic film is usually not lumped into any particular genre. However, a film like The King's Speech makes it obvious just how much of a genre, complete with its own conventions, the typical Oscar-worthy drama is. From its heartwarming theme of overcoming adversity to every beat from the accomplished cast, The King's Speech takes viewers on a pre-programmed journey into a wonderful dramatic world that combines a dollop of history with a good old fashioned story about a man with a handicap. The "generic" quality of The King's Speech is hardly a bad thing -- from the opening frame to closing it delivers exactly what it promises, and this Blu-ray offers an excellent way to relive the film along with interesting contextual extras.
It's the dawn of the radio as a tool for government communication, and Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth, Nanny McPhee) finds himself with a stutter, making his radio appearances excruciating affairs. After yet another humiliation, and having tried out every medical doctor in London, "Bertie" finds himself at the office of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, Quills), an unconventional speech therapist who insists on equality with his royal patient. With his father George V (Michael Gambon, Gosford Park) ailing and his brother (Guy Pearce, Memento) insistent on taking up relations with a divorcee, the crown could pass to Prince Albert as Hitler's troops march across Europe. He and Lionel will have to set aside their differences if Bertie is to be the reassuring voice the nation needs.
The core of The King's Speech is its uplifting story of how Bertie overcame his stutter to lead Britain to victory against the Nazi hordes. It's a wonderful idea for a film, coming along as it does in a year filled with other award films (like The Social Network and Black Swan) that are unrepentantly dark and/or cynical. The story also benefits from being one we've essentially seen before. Bertie is the hero who first refuses the call to greatness, refuses it again, and must journey to the underworld of Lionel's relatively un-posh flat to earn the right to be king. It's classic mythmaking straight out of Joseph Campbell.
Since we've seen this story before, it's up to the actors (and to a lesser extent, director Tom Hooper) to sell us on its newness. Colin Firth is painfully good as Bertie. The pained looks he gets struggling against his stutter speak volumes -- more, in fact, than his speech does. In the scenes where he must overcome his stutter in the face of taunting are simply heart-wrenching in their simplicity. Geoffrey Rush has the more enjoyable job of being the wily tutor to Bertie's struggling stutter. He displays the sly wit and comforting earthiness of some of his previous roles. Helena Bonham Carter, as Bertie's wife, is surprisingly down to earth and only pulls out her arch cattiness in a few choice scenes. The other actors (including familiar faces like Derek Jacobi and Timothy Spall) are equally well cast, ensuring that every scene brims with actorly life.
When I first saw that Tom Hooper captured the Best Director Oscar, I assumed it was because the rest of the Academy was split between David Fincher and Darren Arronofsky, allowing Hooper to slide in as the black horse candidate. After all, The King's Speech is an historical drama, hardly the space for bravura displays of directorial acumen (at least when compared to the work of Fincher and Arronofsky). And yet, Hooper finds some interesting ways to show Bertie's transformation, including different lenses to distort Lionel's apartment, and lots of framing that isolates the characters. It's not a flashy or overly showy directorial style for the most part, but the look of the film shows a firm hand.
The King's Speech makes a triumphant debut on Blu-ray. The AVC-encoded transfer is excellent. Color is strong, detail is high, and grain is kept appropriate throughout. Black levels could be a bit stronger, and there's a bit of noise early on, but these don't significantly detract from the overall appearance of the film. The DTS-HD soundtrack is appropriately detailed for a film that's all about speech. The dialogue is kept perfectly audible, even when Bertie stutters, and the subtle use of music and the surrounds is impressive.
Extras start out with a subdued audio commentary from director Tom Hooper. He talks about the usual topics, including how the project came about and how production played out. We also get a fairly standard making-of. The extras get really interesting though with two speeches from the actual Bertie (or King George VI as he was known by then), and an interview with Lionel's grandson (who, incidentally, wrote the book on which the film is based). We're also treated to a 22-minute Q&A featuring the director and his cast, as well as a PSA for The Stuttering Foundation.
Overall, I enjoyed The King's Speech, but it could sometimes feel a bit too generic, and even though I knew nothing about King George VI except for the fact of his brother's abdication, I still found myself knowing what was coming next in the film. Similarly, the film's second act bogs down a bit. I appreciate that the film is trying to fill in some historical detail to raise the stakes of Bertie's speech problems, but when the film dials out to give us a portrait of the royal family (and the nation) in crisis, it loses the intimacy that makes its opening and closing acts so compelling. It very much makes me wish the film had been made for a British audience who could be assumed to be familiar with the material, so all that second act stuff could have been excised in favor of more interaction between Lionel and Bertie.
The King's Speech is a solid film, and one that's difficult to find fault with. In fact, its major fault might be that there is nothing to fault it for: the film doesn't try to stretch anything, either in terms of story or cinema. That means that a compellingly personal story is delivered, but an opportunity to tell that story in a new way is passed up. Those just looking for a Friday evening's entertainment will find something to enjoy, while those looking for a little more will likely be disappointed. In either case this is a solid Blu-ray release that does the film justice in the audiovisual department while offering a handful of important contextual supplements.
I didn't find my voice, but I did find The King's Speech not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Cinema Verdict Review