The King’s Speech (Blu-ray)
There’s no upside in defending a Best Picture winner, and also no need. Disappointed fans of a film that didn’t win (or wasn’t even nominated) will never be convinced, and why bother trying? The campaign is done, the vote is over and the statue has already been awarded. It’s almost a relief, because you can finally put aside the posturing and just watch the movie.
The King’s Speech is one of those oddball films that looks like one thing, but turns out to be another. It has all the trappings of a prestige historical drama, the kind of big screen Masterpiece Theater series that routinely leaves contemporary audiences cold (The Young Victoria, anyone?). But The King’s Speech did spectacular box office, because viewers found something else: a classic buddy film (a “bromance”, as star Colin Firth called it) that was both moving and funny. This wasn’t a history lesson; it was a story about interesting people, one of whom happened to be royalty.
Studio: AnchorBay Entertainment/The Weinstein Company
Film Length: 119 min.
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 50GB
Theatrical Release Date: Nov. 26, 2010
Blu-ray Release Date: Apr. 19, 2011
As most people already know, The King’s Speech is the story of how England’s King George VI (Firth) overcame a crippling stammer with the help of an Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). It would be a purely personal story, were it not for the fact that the stammerer involved couldn’t avoid public speaking and was destined (or, from the King’s point of view, condemned) to have history record those occasions.
Then again, Albert, the Duke of York (or “Bertie”, as he was known to his family), was never supposed to be king. He spent his early life in the shadow of his older brother, David, the Prince of Wales (Guy Pearce). David cut a more traditionally royal figure and appeared to be the favorite of their father, the stern and commanding George V (Michael Gambon). Bertie served in the Royal Navy in World War I and would have been content to live a quiet life with his wife, the former Lady Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), and their two daughters, Margaret and Elizabeth (a little girl in the film, but currently England’s monarch). One of the many non-royal touches about Bertie and Elizabeth when we first meet them in The King’s Speech is their residence: not a palace, but a townhouse (admittedly, a very large one).
But even a lesser member of the royal family must perform public functions. The film opens with Bertie’s disastrous attempt to give the closing address at the Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1925 – and right at the outset, director Tom Hooper begins what he calls “subverting the cliches of royal drama”. The future king and queen are not attired or lit any differently from the rest of the crowd, nor are they positioned in any place of honor. Hooper includes enough long shots to provide a sense of the crowd’s size, so that Bertie’s stage fright is understandable, but most shots are close-ups suitable for a horror film. Either they show Bertie’s terrified point of view as he approaches or stares at the microphone, or they push in at an odd angle on Bertie’s face frozen with fear.
When the stammer finally arrives, it’s almost an afterthought, because Hooper has already conveyed Bertie’s predicament visually. This is the story of a man who’s stuck and needs to get unstuck.
It is Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth, who finds Logue and persuades him to see her husband (with, of course, absolute discretion). Here again, director Hooper goes against expectations. Less than 20 minutes into the film, he steers it into a nine-minute two-hander between Bertie and Logue. If you step back and think about it for a moment, the risk is breathtaking. How many major motion pictures just let characters talk to each other these days? And, as Geoffrey Rush wondered when they were making the film, who wants to see a movie about two middle-aged men becoming friends?
A lot of people, as it turned out. Indeed, when you first watch this extended scene between Logue and the future king, you’re not even aware of the time passing. The situation is so odd, screenwriter David Seidler’s dialogue is so crisply efficient, and the energy with which Rush’s Logue and Firth’s Bertie thrust, parry and circle each other is so crackling and alive that the sequence keeps you fully engaged. (In a clever move, Hooper chose it for the first day of shooting, so that Rush and Firth brought all the nervous energy of starting the film to their characters’ initial encounter.)
For the rest of the film, Hooper and editor Tariq Anwar take great pains to preserve the right balance between the evolving Bertie/Lionel friendship and the march of historical events that elevates the friendship’s importance to official status. Bertie’s stammer would have remained a minor public embarrassment, if his brother, after ascending the throne as Edward VIII in January 1936, had not turned around and abandoned it later that year to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). The result, often called “the Abdication Crisis”, threw the country into chaos. The British monarchy may be little more than a symbol, but it’s a symbol representing continuity, while governments come and go. No British monarch had ever abdicated, and certainly not for something so trivial as love. With limited screen time, Guy Pearce manages to convey a sense of David/Edward’s immense charm, along with the personal flaws that made him abandon his post at a crucial juncture for the country.
Logue coaches Bertie through his coronation in 1937, but their greatest challenge lies ahead. When Hitler invades Poland in 1939, England and Germany go to war. The King is now expected to address the nation and the empire live by radio, precisely the sort of occasion that terrifies him with the prospect of freezing into speechless silence. “Get Logue here immediately”, he tells his staff.
The speech that King George VI delivered on Sept. 3, 1939 does not contain any quotable rhetoric. It does not echo through history as does, say, Churchill’s “finest hour” address. The film makes it clear that the King did not even write it himself. The drama of the climactic sequence is whether Bertie can survive to the end and get all the words out – a question that was probably on the mind of many of Bertie’s listeners, since his speaking problems were common knowledge.
Even here, the script and Hooper’s directorial approach are unexpected. Bertie’s delivery of the speech in a sound booth is preceded by what can only be described as a scene out of theater of the absurd, as Bertie and Logue rehearse using all of the unconventional techniques that Logue had developed. Colin Firth’s gift for physical comedy has been showcased before (in such films as Bridget Jones, Love Actually and Mamma Mia!), but nothing on his resumé matches the unsettling vision of a dignified man in a British naval uniform doggedly singing, waltzing and spitting out curses, all while trying to affirm the central tenets of Western civilization.
When Firth steps into the sound booth, Hooper puts the camera right up against his face, as he did at Wembley, so that he can exploit the great gift for expressive minimalism that Firth demonstrated in films like A Single Man. But even as Firth’s expression struggles to contain the epic battle raging inside him, the antic vision of his rehearsal remains like an after-image, giving a concrete sense of the turmoil happening within Bertie over every single word. It’s one of the most unusual uses of montage in recent films.
The King’s Speech ends at an interesting point. England is about to suffer a string of military defeats and a ruinous blitz from the Nazi war machine, but the mood is triumphant. One victory has already been achieved, and it’s the one for which the King and Lionel Logue have been working together privately for years.
The film’s exceptional ensemble includes several standouts not already mentioned: Claire Bloom as Bertie’s emotionally frozen Queen Mother; Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury, who takes an instant dislike to Logue; Timothy Spall as the latest English actor to impersonate Winston Churchill; and, reuniting with Firth onscreen for the first time since Pride and Prejudice, Jennifer Ehle in the small but critical role of Logue’s wife, Myrtle. It is Myrtle who provides the sole occasion on which Logue shows fear to his royal friend and patient. Having failed to tell Myrtle about his famous client, Logue is panicked when she appears unexpectedly during a session. Bertie, who is no stranger to the terror that seizes a man at the prospect of upsetting his wife, suddenly finds himself in the unaccustomed position of being able to come to Logue’s aid. He is, after all, the King of England.
When The King’s Speech was in theaters, the “softness” of the film’s cinematography was a subject of comment on HTF, and that softness is evident on the Blu-ray. But “softness” is not the same as indistinctness. The Blu-ray image is fully resolved and finely detailed throughout, and the “softness” is the effect of a color scheme that favors pastels and faded tones, rather than saturated hues that pop off the screen. Black levels are exceptionally accurate and deep throughout the film, and this is crucial for the many tuxedos, deep blue naval uniforms and black and grey suits in which the film’s male characters are typically attired. One other indicator of how stable the black levels are is the complete absence of any “banding” on fades, dissolves and scene transitions.
The film was finished on a digital intermediate, from which the Blu-ray was presumably sourced. However, unlike with many contemporary films, the DI process does not appear to have been used here to eliminate all traces of film grain. There is a minor but distinct presence of grain if one looks for it. It is particularly easy to spot in outdoor scenes, most of which reflect the stereotypical English climate of rain or fog. With only one lossless audio track and one commentary track, and most special features in standard definition, the bulk of the BD-50’s available space has been devoted to optimal image quality, which means a notable absence of any compression-related issues. This is one gorgeous Blu-ray.
Since sound goes to the very essence of the film’s subject, one would expect the sound editing to be a critical element of the story, and it is. For example, the concluding sequence, as the perspective continually shifts from the subjective experience of the King giving his speech in a sound booth to various listeners hearing it all over the world from a variety of receiving devices – each with its own tonal quality – is a triumph of continuity. What could easily have become a choppy distraction instead becomes almost a meditation on the two aspects of Bertie’s existence: the public persona and the private struggle that made it possible. This is sound editing at its finest and subtlest.
Other, more traditional examples show off the DTS lossless track, such as a flyover and landing by an airplane piloted by the future King Edward, or an air raid warning as Logue rushes to Buckingham Palace, or the intimidating echoes of Bertie’s voice at his disastrous 1925 speech at Wembley. Alexandre Desplat’s jaunty classical score floats pleasantly over and above the action, and several notable works by major composers are interwoven at key moments, notably that old standby, the Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, which is used to underscore the King’s radio address to the empire.
I don’t want to include a separate section on disc mastering, but it should be noted that AnchorBay has mastered this disc using BD-Java, while omitting the ability to set bookmarks. No BDJ-encoded disc should ever lack this capability. BDJ prevents the user from stopping playback and starting from the same position, and bookmarking is the only workaround. Its omission is inexcusable.
Commentary with Director Tom Hooper. Hooper offers a wealth of information about locations, script revisions, technical details, editing choices and the contribution of various actors to the script as it evolved. He also alludes to various scenes that were either dropped or radically shortened during editing, which suggests that a future edition of the film might contain deleted scenes. For example, a funeral sequence for George V was filmed but omitted, because it would have taken the film too far away from Bertie’s story. There was also a much longer version of the scene in which Bertie discusses the abdication crisis with Prime Minister Baldwin (Anthony Andrews); it was deemed too heavy on exposition that wasn’t necessary for Bertie’s story.
The King’s Speech: An Inspirational Story of an Unlikely Friendship (SD; 1.78:1, enhanced for 16:9) (23:39). This is the same behind-the-scenes documentary that has recently been playing on the Starz network, and it’s one of the better ones I’ve seen. Nearly every major actor is interviewed, along with Hooper, producer Iain Canning and screenwriter David Seidler. The comments have a definite PR quality to them, but they also contain insights into the characters and the approach to presenting them.
Q&A with the Director & the Cast (HD; 1.78:1) (22:01). Taped for Matt’s Movies on radio KCRW in Southern California, the panel includes Firth, Bonham Carter, Pearce, Bloom and Hooper.
Speeches from the Real King George VI. Included are the Sept. 3, 1939 radio broadcast that serves as the film’s conclusion (5:42), and a speech captured on newsreel on May 14, 1945 announcing victory over Germany (4:3; 2:29). The 1939 recording provides an opportunity to appreciate the precision with which Colin Firth captured King George’s particular rhythms and inflections and the slight mispronunciations that were among the remaining signs of his stutter under Logue’s tutelage. (The speech included here is complete; the version in the film has been shortened.)
The Real Lionel Logue (SD; 1.78:1, enhanced for 16:9) (10:34). This interview with Logue’s grandson, Mark, describes how a previously unknown archive of Logue’s diaries, along with correspondence between the King and Logue, was discovered after the death of Logue’s youngest son (Mark’s father). Hooper notes elsewhere in the special features that certain exchanges between Logue and Bertie were taken verbatim from these sources.
The Stuttering Foundation (PSA) (SD; 4:3) (1:03). This effective public service announcement is delivered by a several young victims of stuttering who have clearly made enormous progress in overcoming the impediment.
Trailers. The film’s trailer is not included. At startup, the disc plays trailers for Blue Valentine and The Company Men; these can be skipped with the chapter forward button.
Is The King’s Speech the best picture of 2010? I have no idea. Oscar voting produces a snapshot of opinion at a moment in time among a relatively small group of people. But the film’s box office success ($137 million domestic; $247 foreign) is a matter of record, and when such an unlikely release generates such favorable audience reaction, attention must be paid.
Given the track record of the Weinsteins at Miramax, there will almost certainly be a deluxe edition of The King’s Speech down the line. In the meantime, anyone who wants to experience the film in a high-quality presentation can watch the Blu-ray with confidence that this cleverly executed twist on the British royalty bio-pic has been well and truly represented.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Acoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub