Films about British royalty are catnip to awards voters. But in “The King’s Speech,” Tom Hooper uses every tool at his disposal to treat his central character as a man, not a monarch.
“If there’s a cliche of royal filmmaking, I was desperate to subvert it,” Hooper explains. “Originally, the whole film was about royal pageantry, but I wanted to avoid all that lavishness and sumptuousness and gilt, and everyone wearing costumes covered with gold braid and feathers.
“Fortunately, my desire to subvert royal film cliche coincided with primary research that revealed royal film cliche was inaccurate. I saw pictures of Bertie (Prince Albert, who becomes King George VI) in a black overcoat, grey suit, black bowler hat, and he was no different from anyone else. I was struck by this image of him against a dirty brick wall, mumbling a speech. He’s an Everyman figure, and there’s not a single thing that marks him out as royal.”
The production and costume design, the use of extreme close-ups, off-kilter compositions and long Steadicam shots, and the intensive workshopping of the script with the actors and the writer in the weeks before shooting, were all calculated by Hooper to achieve a directness of emotional expression between the characters and the audience.
“We had three weeks of rehearsal with two actors (Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush) are who are unbelievably rigorous on the detail of text,” Hooper says. “It plays so well because we really did the hard work. Being quite forensic with how intimate the camera is with people was also very important to me in terms of subverting cliche. It makes the film feel vividly present tense. It makes people think, ‘I don’t know this world, and I don’t know this story.’ ”
As a result, he says, “The trappings of royalty set up no barrier between Bertie and the audience.”
It certainly seems to have worked, judging by the emotional reaction at festival and industry screenings.
“I’ve had the odd meeting with hard-bitten studio executives who tell me I’ve made them weep and start talking about their relationship with their dad,” Hooper notes.