The King’s Speech arrived in the UK on January 7th 2011 to a cultural climate that is much less polarised than today’s. Its film’s subject is conservative material: Prince Albert (Colin Firth) learning to combat his stammer with the aid of speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), largely whilst finding himself thrust into becoming wartime leader King George VI. It was warmly received, however, with over $400 million earned in the box office – about a hundred million more than the more obvious crowd pleaser of Star Wars spin-off Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018). This financial success is in addition to critical success, where it garnered highly positive reviews and the ultimate accolade of Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Today, though, it seems a throwback to an era when a well-produced but old-fashioned drama was enough to earn the most famous prize in film, and acts a reminder of where cinema is headed.
A likely reason for its success was the power of Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the former now disgraced and in prison for sexual offences. Harvey’s crimes can’t be divorced from the power he wielded over people, and it’s well known that his influence ensured Shakespeare in Love (1998) became a Best Picture winner twelve years before this later win. However, it’s clearly not the case that it succeeded from the Weinstein’s being salesmen able to put conventional films above their stations. The Academy has always been full of socially regressive voting, reflected in Green Book (2018) getting the top prize despite it being widely perceived elsewhere as a condescending, white guilt appeasing Driving Miss Daisy (1989).
Britain’s royalty did hold something of an appeal at that time, making it a likely uncontroversial choice for the general public. There were a number of major real life events such as the then-upcoming Diamond Jubilee and wedding of Kate and William, accompanied by years of monarchy focused films like The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), The Queen (2006), etc. The Royal Family was seeing a relatively scandal-free period of renewed enthusiasm that hadn’t obviously waned since the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, and no doubt the UK’s return to the Conservative Party in 2010 made support of such tradition a much easier prospect.
Undoubtedly there were and are plenty of people who’d be deeply disinterested by a story focused on the concerns of a royal, but most sceptics would find it hard not to experience any joy from the performances of Firth and Rush. You can’t avoid some level of interest in where the narrative goes thanks to both of their characters’ genuine repartee, deriving from the actors’ skill in portraying the human and appropriately contrasting characters. It does go for heightened, highly scripted sequences at points, though, with the scene where Firth yells “I have a voice!” being an iconic example of a sentimental set piece that seems rare today. This, however, still isn’t necessarily a problem, as even when you can recognise a scene being artificial the engagingly alive performances can still bring out an unwitting smile.
Superficially this might have seemed a fresher take with its look at a lesser discussed figure, though it’s obsessed with being a human interest story. The problem with getting viewers interested in the human drama is that it depends on being able to relate with the main characters, which is a problem when your main character is a king who receives very little criticism from the film. Indeed, the film is at pains to humanise the King, right down to the invention of Logue referring to him as “Bertie”. It’s insulting to expect us to identify and sympathise with someone in a position of privilege that would’ve been even more markedly separate from your average person in the 1930s.
This totally uncritical film does not fit into the era of #OscarsSoWhite and Green Book where milquetoast, status quo supporting content isn’t accepted as the best of cinema. This has no qualms with privilege, presenting a charming picture of Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) as a gentle buffoon and the Queen Mother (Helena Bonham Carter) as aloof and judgemental in a way that’s implicitly fair for her social status. Everyone is in their correct station, and the film even suggests pity for the likes of King George; he’s one of many people in power trying to do their best against trying circumstances. This gentle approach to portraying these people might suit some audiences but it hardly challenges them, not leaving any lesson about privilege beyond reinforcing the status quo.
It’s a film designed to induce warm feelings regardless of political impact and the reality of truth, opting to be fact-based blockbuster popcorn. It plays with facts in order to create the biggest impact on the audience, its misrepresentations rooted in how Logue and George VI are somewhat battling against time with the rapidly evolving threat of war. In fact, they’d begun working together in the 1920s with great enthusiasm from the future king. Altering a fundamental part of the story just to make it juicier to watch, coupled with the story’s soft handling of morally questionable figures and institutions, makes this feel less a classic and more stablemate of superficial music biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocketman (2019).
It’s not a film that has become dreadful in a decade. If you’re looking for an uplifting story then there are worse to be found, an exceptional cast ensuring that it supersedes its flaws to be a solid piece of entertainment. However, it is clearly not worthy of being a Best Picture winner and all its flaws show how big the gulf in expectation has become over the past decade. This is a well-made but vacuous film that doesn’t relate to most of our lives. Indeed, it’s subtly dangerous in how it aids the elevation of, and sympathy for, people and systems which deserve scrutiny and criticism. This is the product of a Hollywood that had its ears intentionally shut to the frustrations of the wider world, and hopefully this remains history whilst engaged, socially-conscious, and distinctive works actively take stock of our present.
Header image courtesy of Momentum Pictures / Lantern Entertainment