Thursday, December 30, 2010

Finding Balance in 'The King's Speech'

The plot of The King's Speech is hardly surprising. If you study (or remember) history prior to WWII, you'll undoubtedly know of the royalty portrayed on screen. With a title like The King's Speech, the climactic moments aren't really all that much of a climax.

The performances meet the high expectations set for award winners and nominees. Colin Firth brilliantly creates a character in a role with very little physicality--beyond facial expression and a few scenes detailing the "mechanics" of solving the King's speech problem. Clearly, this isn't a holiday action film. Instead, the close-ups emphasize every element of the Prince's, later King's, ability to speak; the film's focus is the journey to allow this man a voice in his own life as much as in history.

What stands out beyond the expected, however, is the teeter-totter shifting of balance between Firth's Bertie/King George VI and everyone else. Many scenes cut between head shots of two characters, one on either side of the screen, with the intercut images providing a strange sense of balance. Most often this visual balance occurs in revelatory scenes between Bertie and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Throughout the majority of the film, Firth is filmed to one side of the screen, creating a sense of being off balance, especially when the other side is "empty"--devoid of background image or another person. Only when he truly feels "kingly" does this balance change--and the King dominates the center of the screen.

At times, the camera follows Firth, such as when the King makes that long walk toward the mic, bringing the audience along in his wake. A fisheye lens captures the new King's viewpoint as he stands before an appraising crowd. The contrast between foggy London and dark, emerging figures presents interesting shades of gray and creates stark visuals. When you see the film (or see it again), pay attention to lighting and camera movement.

The camera angles, strategic lighting, and contrasts between classes, the lead characters, and light-dark effects are far more interesting than the expected story development, although Helena Bonham Carter shines as Elizabeth, later known as the Queen Mother. Again, the film's emphasis on her character hinges on line delivery and facial expression. A sly smile, quirk of an eyebrow, and witty comment all provide depth to what could have been a simple "stand by your man" role.

I went to this film to see outstanding performances, and I wasn't disappointed. The way the camera told the story, however, gave me something unexpectedly memorable.

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