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Remember This Scene?: 'The King's Speech'

Jeremy Fuster |
September 17, 2013 | 11:04 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Colin Firth as King George VI in "The King's Speech" (The Weinstein Company).
Colin Firth as King George VI in "The King's Speech" (The Weinstein Company).
Every Tuesday, Jeremy Fuster analyzes a critical scene from a popular film. Join him every week as he delves into what exactly makes these critical scenes so memorable and successful.

Movies based on historical events have a very distinct trait that affects how they are made and viewed: they are spoiler-free. The plot has already been told in dozens of biographies, textbooks, and documentaries. We know that the Titanic is going to sink and take most of its third-class passengers with it, which means Jack and Rose's relationship isn't going to last for very long. We know that the man Daniel Day-Lewis is portraying is going to free the slaves and get shot in a theater. And we know that Great Britain will stand strong in the face of the Third Reich and prevail in World War II.

In spite of these expected conclusions, the historical film genre has regularly produced films that win big at the Oscars. Why? Because the best of that particular breed of films are able to give audiences a sense of what it is like to be right in the middle of a major  moment in history. They make it easy to empathize with the characters as they encounter major historical events with no idea of how things are going to turn out. When a historical film fails to do this, you get something like "Hyde Park On Hudson" or "The Iron Lady," films with great lead performances but which failed to capture the emotions felt by those who experienced the events those films portrayed.

But when a film does capture that empathy, you get something like "The King's Speech," a masterpiece filled with top-notch acting that managed to win Best Picture despite being nominated alongside movies that had spent months in the center of the public consciousness (e.g. "Inception," "The Social Network," and "Toy Story"). There are many theories about how the film won the top Oscar, both positive - brilliant acting by Colin Firth and company - and negative - it was a safe film designed to be liked by the old fogies that make up the Academy. But I believe there is one scene that pushed "The King's Speech" across the line and gave it the victory, and that is one in which King George VI, a.k.a. Bertie, makes his climatic broadcast to the world. 

There is no better example of a movie taking its audience back in time and showing how it felt to experience history unfolding. What was once thought unthinkable is about to happen: Britain is about to go to war again, and this time against a far more menacing enemy. Hitler and Stalin are growing in power, and there is no guarantee that Britain will be able to hold them back. Now it is up to Bertie, The Reluctant King, to overcome the stammer that rendered him incapable of public speaking for years and rally his people for the biggest test their nation will ever face.

After a tense final rehearsal in which Bertie rambles nervously about how he does not feel ready and finds it strange that he is expected to lead his people despite being only a figurehead, he takes the long walk past dignitaries and politicians to the room where he will make his broadcast. After a few final quips and reassurances from his personal speech therapist, Lionel Logue, the red light flashes, the microphone turns on, and the speech begins.

Before Colin Firth utters a syllable, the scene provides signs that something extraordinary is about to happen. First, the opening chord of Beethoven's "Allegretto" is the only sound that can be heard, and as this happens, Logue brings his hands up and apart, like a conductor signaling his orchestra at the start of a symphony. Then, we get a brief shot of Queen Elizabeth, played by Helena Bonham Carter, closing her eyes. With that one shot, Carter is able to encapsulate all the anxiety felt by the people inside Buckingham Palace, as they wait to see if the King will pass this verbal trial by fire.

Then Firth begins reading the speech, using the pauses that the real King George made when performing the mental exercises that helped him avoid repeating syllables. As he does so, Geoffrey Rush stands across from him as Logue, making gentle hand gestures. All the while the Allegretto slowly crescendos in the background until it completes the transformation from a handful of plodding cellos to a full orchestra playing the movement's A minor melody. The Allegretto is the musical equivalent of Bertie's journey, as he slowly and sometimes unwittingly gains confidence in himself until he finally reaches his potential as king. And through it all, Logue is the conductor to Bertie's orchestra, the two working together to conquer the microphone between them.

The scene also takes us across England to show people sitting around the radio listening to the speech, searching for some sort of reassurance as they brace themselves for a war that "can no longer be confined to the battlefield." We also see the film's secondary characters listen to the speech, including Logue's family, Bertie's mother, and Edward VIII, whose's abdication of the throne led Bertie to this moment. Through these shots, the climax becomes a review of the entire plot, calling to mind all the relationships tested by Bertie's journey of self-discovery.

Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar for directing this film, did a brilliant job turning this important scene into a winner. It brings all the plot threads together at a critical moment like any climax should, but it also uses every auditory and visual element it has at its disposal to convey the emotions of its characters. Whether it's fear of the blitzkriegs to come, pride in a husband for helping a monarch, or determination to say the word "peoples" instead of "p-p-p-peoples," we are not only shown what happened on that fateful day in 1939. We are shown how it felt to live through it. Minutes before "The King's Speech" was named Best Picture, a montage featuring all the nominees was played with Firth's speech as the backdrop. If you need evidence of how much an impact that scene made on the film's legacy, look no further. Was it Oscar bait? Maybe. But if that's the Oscar bait that's being put on the hook these days, I will bite every time.

Next week: "It...It's a dinosaur!"

Reach Staff Reporter Jeremy Fuster here; Follow him on Twitter.



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