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‘The King’s Speech’: Read my lips

In drama, the King was readied for his closeup

While “The King’s Speech” follows the man who would be king, Prince Albert of York, as he stammers his way through speech therapy during his ascent to the throne, the framing of the film itself, aptly enough, centers on the king’s mouth.

“I knew that the dominant language of the film woud be the closeup,” director Tom Hooper said in a post-screening Q&A at the Linwood Dunn Theatre in Hollywood. The emphasis on close-ups puts “Speech” in sharp contrast with other, more classical historical dramas. “It feels more forensic and brutal.”

“When (Hooper) says a ‘closeup,’ he means a closeup using a wide lens,” director of photography Danny Cohen clarifies to Variety. This posed a couple problems for the cinematographer, but it was overcoming these obstacles that make “The King’s Speech” a visually striking film.

“The conundrum is, if you use wide lenses close to the actor, you can see a lot of the background,” says Cohen. Wide angle lenses have greater depth of field than long lenses. Thus the background is “very visible and very in focus,” he added.

This put an increased pressure on production designer Eve Stewart to craft backgrounds that were compelling but not distracting. The result, in the case of speech therapist Lionel Logue’s office, is a dusty room with peeling paint in muted colors of all shades.

They say “if you put an actor in front of … a busy background, you slightly lose them. You put them in front of a plain background, and they stand out,” according to Cohen. “I think the reverse is true.”

In shots that focus on Colin Firth’s King George VI alone, Hooper and Cohen put little in the background beside the multi-colored wall, forcing the thesp to drown in empty space, which mirrors the king drowning in his inability to speak. Conversely, Geoffrey Rush’s Logue was backed by clutter, trinkets and things to reflect his eccentricity. The therapist’s office plays both set and psyche for the men, and contrasts with King George’s stately manse.

Another obstacle was lighting. Using a wide angle lens limits a filmmaker’s options for light placement, so the crew had to rely on natural light for much of the shots.

“We shot during last winter,” Cohen recalls. “In London in the winter, you lose the light at half past four in the afternoon. … It’s not an ideal time to make a film because you’re always going to struggle with the window you’re shooting in.”

In spite of these, and a number of other photographic hurdles, the “King’s” focal point remains intact.

“What’s interesting is that, by and large, when people take a photograph, they look at people’s eyes,” says Cohen. “They’re so interested in what the eyes tell you. But what sets “Speech” apart, he adds, is that “it’s about someone who needs to speak and can’t speak. … The focus of the attention” — and of the camera — “is what’s happening in the mouth.”

More from Eye on the Oscars: The Cinematography
From pretty pictures to fatal beauty | Filming ‘Hours’ a challenge | Is it real or is it fx? | Sensuality floods frame | ‘Town’s’ unfussy authenticity | Read my lips | Gothic tone asserts itself

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