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The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010)


With more cloying heart than necessary, Tom Hooper’s biopic The King’s Speech sets out to implausibly characterize the stuttering monarch King George VI as an unusual underdog. What results is a film that spends its first hour desperately trying to please the crowd and its second attempting to justify its own sense of importance. The “loveable” George VI (Colin Firth) whom we get to know in the film’s first half is abstracted and turned into a symbol of British resilience in the second. The tone shifts, lamentably, from one buoyed by awkward comedy and very British charm to one that is more concerned with decorum and duty. What was a remarkably entertaining costume drama soon becomes a remarkable slog.


The King’s Speech would likely seem like less of a disappointment if it weren’t so promising early on. After a clumsy prologue establishes the George VI’s affliction as a nightmare, director Hooper quickly begins a process of humanization for the character. This pandering is admittedly effective, against any of our better judgment. As George stammers his way toward rehabilitation, we are introduced to his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), and his unconventional, Australian speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush), each of whom initially appear to be well-sketched and likeable characters. Together, they begin an uplifting march toward a cure, as George, learning to cope with his daddy issues, starts to come out of his shell.


Things proceed rather nicely, until the therapist oversteps a social boundary and George insists upon ending treatment. This dramatic turn dramatically shifts the tone of the film, turning The King’s Speech into a bloated historical account of England’s struggles. It seems highly unlikely that many will fully welcome this change, which Hooper seems ill-equipped to naturalize. Suddenly, it seems as if we are watching a different, less fun film. The quality of the acting, too, follows a similar trajectory of quality. Firth’s performance, which initially seems like it might delve into productive terrain, never evolves beyond a gimmick (if he wins an Oscar for this, it will be Rain Man all over again). Rush’s best moments all come early on, as his character is still able to surprise us. His bag of tricks soon runs out. Bonham Carter similarly seems wily and witty at first, but reduced to wallflower status by the film’s midpoint.


The technical aspects of The King’s Speech do little to help. One would argue that it feels like the stuff of television drama, but Hooper’s own television dramas such as John Adams and the excellent Elizabeth I were far more cinematic (and better acted to boot).  The uneven framing and ostentatious shifts in rack focus that mark George’s moment of crisis only serve to call attention to themselves. Hooper seems uncertain that, without a healthy degree of pandering, his audience will be lost. Nuance is the enemy in this film, which ultimately sends the message that appearances are everything. The King’s Speech strives to generate goodwill, only to twist it toward a self-indulgent message of importance.



Jeremy Heilman