The King’s Speech – feature
This article first appeared in the November 2010 issue of IF magazine before the film won several Academy Awards, including for Australian producer Emile Sherman. The King's Speech was released on DVD on April 30.
Like a powerful voice that reverberates beyond the walls of the hall, The King’s Speech wafted into the Toronto Film Festival following an extraordinary reception in Telluride.
The film’s world premiere in Colorado, with a print carried by hand onto the plane after final tweaks were locked off only a day before, brought with it the dizzying euphoria of altitude and praise.
“They made us feel like we were in a Noel Coward play because the laughter was so unexpected,” Geoffrey Rush tells IF magazine. “One guy in the audience had admitted an apprehension about the story being too deferential and dry, but said he couldn’t believe the detailed humanity that was brought out in these characters.”
So in Toronto the film was met with the excitement and buzz typical of material destined for Awards consideration and crowds were turned away from several public screenings. Toronto is not a competitive festival; dramatically-speaking, their only prize is the audience award. That award went to The King’s Speech.
“We knew it was funny but the audience hit every laugh,” says director Tom Hooper. “Lines we thought were just a smile brought laughter and for all of us that was the greatest pleasure. Then it makes you cry so it was a double whammy. I think audiences have been very moved and that’s all you can hope for.”
This astonishing story of England’s King George VI, who is helped to overcome a debilitating stammer by an unconventional Australian speech therapist, is the latest episode in the real-life tribulations of the British Royal family. Delivering performances that are virtually guaranteed recognition come awards time, Colin Firth projects an excruciating and paralysing fear of public speaking as he ascends the throne of England following the abdication of his brother Edward VIII, played by Guy Pearce.
Rush, with the impertinence only a colonial can bring, seems to be the only salvation for the troubled monarch, and what emerges is a completely affecting friendship and co-dependency, a royal bromance of remarkable tenderness.
“It’s a great starting point for an odd couple, you know, Lord Snooty and a kind of Crocodile Dundee,” says Firth. “But we didn’t want to reduce it to a stereotypical broad comedy and Geoffrey’s dramatic sensibilities are far more nuanced and sophisticated than it be just about his culture and class.”
Hooper is of mixed-parenthood – a mother from Adelaide, a British father, so the material was a natural fit and it was a culture clash that Hooper had been eager to explore for a long time.
It was a partnership that had its origins on the publicity circuit of another film, however – Shakespeare In Love. While Rush and Firth shared little screen time on that film, it was while promoting the flick in New York a dozen years ago that the two thespians shared a memorable night out with fellow colleague Rupert Everett – who had a cameo as Christopher Marlowe.
“We got on like a house on fire. They are probably two of the funniest English-speaking people in the world and I held up my antipodean end, as it were,” says Rush.
Then in pre-production and rehearsal on The King’s Speech, “a real, genuine friendship, through humor mostly, reignited itself and contributed enormously to the working relationship.”
The production was faced with a bit of a time crunch, however, while financing was still being finalised last year. Rush suddenly became unavailable for their planned dates and needed to shoot the film and be released before Christmas. Convinced he was the right actor to play the part of the Aussie therapist – and since many of the scenes are between the two principal characters – they were forced to shoot the bulk of the intense scenes early on.
“The first week, we had to shoot really the guts of the movie – those back-to-back consulting sessions which are dotted throughout the film, really dramatic moments, right at the beginning where you’d normally like to have some gentler stuff to ease you in – and that was really challenging,” says producer Emile Sherman. “But because of the rehearsal process they were really in character as soon as the cameras started rolling.”
Considered quite a luxury these days, the central trio of Rush, Firth and Hooper was granted three weeks of intense work-shopping where they broke down each scene and line, embellishing here, tightening there. They mapped out the journey towards friendship and the progression of the therapy. What developed between them during this process is an affection that is palpable on screen, and an appreciation of the work they were accomplishing.
“It’s very enjoyable to be sitting opposite a character as his therapist, but as a fellow actor thinking ‘you are doing some of the most phenomenal screen acting I’ve seen in my life’,” Rush exclaims. “This is a great performance and I have the pleasure and privilege of being a metre and a half away from you.”
This sense of collaboration extended into post-production with Hooper generously sending both Rush and Firth each new cut of the film, wanting feedback in an open discussion, which had never before happened to Rush.
The film’s genesis is another of those unbelievably serendipitous events. In 2007, Hooper’s mother was invited by a friend to be the token Australian representative in a fringe theater group read-through of an unproduced play titled The King’s Speech. Mrs Hooper is a writer of more than 70 published titles and has written histories of Australia, so she can recognise the elements of a good story. She rang Tom that night to say she’d found his next film.
Rush’s introduction to the play was equally improbable. His copy of the screenplay was placed, unsolicited, in a brown paper bag on his doorstep by a member of the same fringe group who happened to know his street address in Melbourne. And Rush actually read it. And liked it, and he became the first person attached as executive producer.
Because there were no offset funds from Australian financing bodies, the film is considered a UK production by the Anglo-Australian company See Saw Films, says Sherman in Sydney, with co-founder Iain Canning in London. The two producers joked that See Saw became a 24-hour company with no escape, since their conversations with financiers in the UK and Australia plus distributors The Weinstein Company in LA and New York made this a truly global pre-production process.
Financing was set up with a mixture of funds from the nowdefunct UK Film Council, distributors Momentum and Transmission/ Paramount in the UK and Australia respectively, plus The Weinstein Co in America, which put up a substantial distribution advance.