First big film release of 2011, and, unusually, I’ve actually seen it in advance, thanks to a special Curzon screening before Christmas: The King’s Speech. You can’t move for advance hype, which seems to be working, judging by the seven Golden Globe nominations and countless US and Canadian critics’ circle awards from Detroit to Dallas Forth Worth. We are looking less at a film here, and more at a global marketing strategy. It’s a British film that has been cunningly released in North America first so that it generates the buzz of a “limited release”, picks up festival props, and qualifies for the 2011 awards season. It was farmed out for special preview screenings like the one I attended before Christmas so that it would also qualify for the Baftas and the British Independent Film Awards – which showered it in glory in December. So, it is finally released here nationwide on Friday, following weeks of being trailed at cinemas and amid acres of coverage in the newspapers (and a paid-for advertorial “pull-out” in today’s Observer). When people duly troop out to see it on Friday, many will feel as if they’ve already seen it.
The King’s Speech seems to have been handled as if it were an indie sleeper hit in the making, when in fact it is a big, populist period romp, the type we’re awfully good at and can’t resist presenting to the rest of the world. (The Yanks have certainly fallen for its charms. Are they that easy to win over? Perhaps, just like I did with Happy Days in the 70s, they think it’s a contemporary drama.) This is the film that’s got it all: a newsreel-familiar backdrop taken from schoolbook 20th century history – namely, the 1936 Abdication Crisis, with its well-worn narrative markers: Wallis Simpson, the resignation of Stanley Baldwin, the storm clouds and outbreak of war – a potentially farcical and yet helpline-ready conceit at its core – the curing of a speech impediment – and three tailor-made parts, two of them iconic, for fine actors to get their teeth into: reluctant, stammering King George VI (Colin Firth), the game, convention-defying Queen Mum-to-be (Helena Bonham-Carter), and Lionel Logue, the eccentric, freewheeling Australian speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush).
If you’ve seen the trailer – and if you’ve been to the cinema since November, you will have, again and again – then you’ll know the story: the Prince, as he is to begin with, is unsuited to public speaking due to a stutter and must overcome his affliction in time to make a key speech that will unite the country now at war. Will he do it? Yes he will. It is written. Just as the decisive free kick in Bend It Like Beckham was written.
So it is that we have a film that’s impeccable in every sense – the acting, the writing, the period recreation, the music, the marketing – and yet one with no jeopardy built into it at any stage. It’s like Clint Eastwood’s Invictus in that sense: we know the final score, we know that nobody dies except King George V, but we’re prepared to climb aboard for the ride just to see the lovely view. However, I actively disliked Invictus, while it’s actually impossible to dislike The King’s Speech. Tourists are fascinated by our royal family; they’re a period piece wherever they go and whatever era they’re in, so any drama that features them, ancient or modern, suits the backward, forelock-tugging, slightly frilly, sexually repressed image of the United Kingdom foreigners prefer. So you can see why the Americans are eating this up, and letting us off for the fallback portrayal of Mrs Simpson as a controlling, vulgar, social and constitutional virus (a nice turn by Eve Best, who’s actually English – she’s in Nurse Jackie).
It’s a gift that, in truth, the man who unlocked George’s stammer was a gregarious, unconventional Aussie who refused to bow and scrape; this, again, chimes with the orthodoxy that Englishmen are uptight, and foreigners free. Firth is note perfect as the comedy King; Rush actually very subtle as his nemesis-turned-saviour. Whether it’s accurate or not, when Logue coaches George to use swear words to unclog his stutter he provides another British actor in a British film with another British excuse to let go and turn the British air blue. Since Hugh Grant did it at the start of Four Weddings, it’s been compulsory. Ha ha, listen to the stuffy British man say “fuck”!
I am filled with admiration for The King’s Speech and I won’t mind a bit if it wins some more awards and earns its marketing team a week off. It’s expertly staged. It might win Firth the Oscar we can all say he should have won for A Single Man. I just wish that once in its 111-minute running time, I’d been surprised. Just as I felt I’d already seen it when I hadn’t, now that I have, I can’t quite remember whether I have.