The King's Speech tells of the relationship between King George VI, or "Bertie" (Colin Firth), who was afflicted with a life-long stammer, and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), the Australian speech therapist who attempted to help the king speak well enough to inspire his nation during the Second World War. Mixing farce and inspiration, the film, which won the audience award at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, is a crowd-pleaser that has been widely touted as an Oscar favourite.
The film can also be seen as a tribute to the craft of acting. Adapted from an unproduced stage play by David Seidler - which film director Tom Hooper's mother saw at a reading, and which was then amplified by a trove of Lionel Logue's letters and diaries discovered a few weeks before production - The King's Speech is stagy in the best sense. The actors work with their full bodies - in a series of key scenes where they work opposite each other.
Star Colin Firth and director Tom Hooper, interviewed separately, offer their impressions of creating those scenes.
Those are my favourite scenes in the movie. We shot them chronologically, starting with a 10-minute scene the first day, which was the first time Colin and Geoffrey had acted together onscreen, and I thought it was important that they meet for the first time on film as the characters met for the first time, with the frisson of these two men from different backgrounds, negotiating the rules.
Before that, we rehearsed for three weeks, seven days a week. I altered my shooting style as I worked. I noticed how beautifully Geoffrey uses his body - initially it was just his hands, and then his whole body. When he walks in, he makes a profile - he talks about character in terms of the profile they make when they stand - and I wanted to capture that. Initially, I just wanted to capture his hands and then I thought, 'Actually, I'm missing his legs' and drew the camera further back.
I think Colin may have lapsed into a neck-up acting style because he hasn't done theatre for six or seven years, and it was great to push him and give him permission to use his body language, particularly in mid-shots where he holds his hands by his sides and arranges his back to make himself look smaller. We did a lot of work on body language, getting Colin to show the agony of the silence and the actual sounds you make when your neck locks up.
I was fortunate that the character's not particularly well-known, even in England. It's not like trying to do Churchill. To do an imitation would be a vain exercise in both senses of the word. I look nothing like him for a start. I felt a better way to go was to go after other qualities that were less representative. He was slightly built and he walked like someone who didn't expect to be accepted, but there was a certain grace. He was athletic. He played Wimbledon and had a certain physical grace, so you try to find a version of that.
The script gave the stammer for a page and then indicated by stage directions that it was to continue. There were certain words I did the same each time. He didn't have a problem with the royal R, for some reason, but W was very bad. In some of the audio of him, you hear the click in the throat, particularly in his speech to the Home Guard. I scored the climactic speech to more or less the rhythm he used - where he'd go three or four syllables before a pause, a way to sort of surf it, if you like, in a rocking motion, between tension and reassuring himself: 'In this grave ... hour ... perhaps the most ... fateful in … our history…'
This wasn't salutary in terms of what it was doing to my body. My left arm went paralyzed for some reason after I'd done some heavy days on two locations. I had headaches most days. The discomfort became part of the guy I was playing in the end, partly from Bertie and partly from me.
Tom used what was really a wide-angle lens in close-up, which isn't flattering to an actor but emphasizes your exposure and vulnerability. I was rarely in the centre of the frame, with a lot of emptiness around me. That's where Bertie lives.
I used Stanley Kubrick's favourite lens, the 18 millimetre, which allows you to be extremely intimate while keeping the characters in relation to their architectural space. There's a lot of negative space around Colin, with this dilapidated wallpaper, while Geoffrey's world is full of clutter - of children and fireplaces and book shelves.
We did a huge amount of work on the script. The great fear was that this would turn into Crocodile Dundee Meets the English King. We were determined to keep it truthful, not to have a Good Will Hunting epiphany or for Colin to suddenly start sounding like [Laurence]Olivier. Both actors are very intelligent and experienced men and they had great suggestions. Colin came up with what might be the script's funniest line: "T… t ... timing isn't my strong suit."
With A Single Man, I arrived in L.A. on Friday and was onset with Julianne Moore on Monday. This time, we worked on every beat of it. No stone was left unturned. We examined the script for humour, for contradictions and nuances, and any dangerous areas where we'd end up playing this cunning odd couple. Of course, in the end we took licence. It had to have its own arc in terms [of the character] thus the extremity of the resolution - you know, Rocky wins that fight. But as great as Bertie's achievement was, he's still quite bad at the end.
THE ACTOR'S NIGHTMARE
Of course, this is all about the actor's anxiety dream. You're standing in front of an audience and suddenly no words will come out. I've corpsed onstage many times. It may be a nanosecond, but a year passes. You don't know what play you're in and you're spiralling backwards through time.
Silence is a strange commodity, isn't it? It can be the thing you strive for - a kind of Zen thing, peace and tranquillity, or it can be the precise opposite, the place where the demons rush in.