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The King’s Speech (2010) – Part 1 – Cinematographic Choices in a Pivotal Scene

THE KING’S SPEECH (2010)

Note: Notwithstanding some exceptions, my goal in my posts is not at all to recap entire films; I aim to share interesting aspects and scenes of films which are particularly striking to me. In two posts on The King’s Speech, I will discuss two of these interesting sections (one per part).

Directed by Tom Hooper (John Adams). Starring Colin Firth (Pride and Prejudice; A Single Man; Love Actually), Geoffrey Rush (Shine; Quills; Shakespeare in Love), Helena Bonham Carter (Fight Club; Planet of the Apes; Alice in Wonderland).

In this stirring and uplifting 2010 period drama (set in the late 1930s, with the final speech set in 1939), Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter play the Duke (“Bertie”) and Duchess of York. Rush plays Lionel Logue, an Australian Speech therapist whose relationship with the Duke, although initially abrasive, becomes increasingly personal and meaningful. Following the abdication of the throne by David, the Duke’s brother, the Duke becomes King of England. Logue assists the Duke in order to prepare him for his first radio broadcast during the war, which will announce Britain’s decision to go to war against Germany.

PART 1: CINEMATOGRAPHIC CHOICES IN A POWERFUL SCENE

With the help of his cinematographer and long-time collaborator, Danny Cohen, B.S.C., Hooper demonstrates careful cinematographic decision making with respect to elements such as lenses, camera stabilization, and shot framing. Using selected frames as visual aids, I will go through the scene in order to effectively analyze the crew’s choices and how these choices help to enhance the story being told.

First, before I begin, watch the full scene below. Bertie is preparing for his coronation ceremony.

Notice that the first five shots — that is, until Firth rises from his seat — are filmed steadily (stabilized on a tripod). This serves to establish a baseline level of calmness from which the scene can escalate. In addition, it serves to create a formal and regal feel fit for a coronation.

Notice also the framing of the first two shots (as well as of the fourth and fifth shots). According to conventional rules of shot framing, leading room (space) must be given in the direction of the gaze of the actor. This is naturally the most pleasing to watch, and it demonstrates that the actor is looking into that space. One can observe this convention in almost any work of film, but here’s a still from an interview with Geoffrey Rush about The King’s Speech:


Conventional Shot Framing


Rush is looking to the right (from our perspective), so he is framed on the left side of the picture with space given on the right.

Now look at this shot of Rush from The King’s Speech. He is speaking to Firth on the right (off screen), yet he is positioned on the right side of the frame with little space allowed for his line of sight.


The same framing rule breakage can be clearly seen in the reverse shot of Firth:


This framing is, and always has been, normally reserved for situations in which an event will happen from behind the character to fill the empty space. For example, take this frame from an 1895 film by the Lumiere brothers, pioneers in the early days of cinema. Seconds later, a boy comes up from behind to play a trick on the man:


The framing of the shots from The King’s Speech is not an accident. A film of this caliber would not make such an obvious mistake. Cinematic rules exist in order to be understood and broken — broken only at times when it will result in increased clarity of creative intent. So, what is the result of this rule breakage? Well, we saw similar framing patterns earlier in the film. Take for example the scene during which Bertie (Firth) and Lionel (Rush) discuss Bertie’s childhood. Here is the shot of Bertie (my apologies for the poor quality of these images; they were taken of a screen).


And here is the reverse shot of Lionel:


Look at how displaced they are! This type of shot framing has been incorporated in order to convey disconnect and discomfort. The disconnect comes from the fact that there is a clear social divide between Lionel and royal Bertie which understandably makes it harder for them to relate to each other. Bertie is initially skeptical of Lionel and uses his royalty as a form of superiority. The discomfort comes from two main sources. First, Bertie nervously anticipates the challenges and burdens/responsibilities of becoming King. Second, Bertie and Lionel are working together to fix Bertie’s stutter and anxiety, and they have not yet achieved this goal. Bertie may have doubts about Lionel’s skills and judgement as a professional, and Lionel may have doubts about Bertie’s willingness to cooperate and not give up. Thus, tension is tangible between them.

Still dealing with the initial tripod shots, check out the wide shot:


This shot was captured using a wide-angle lens. Dead giveaways: background is in focus and the left and right sides are distorted in a fisheye-lens-like way. Since they distort the image via stretching, wide angle lenses are often used to highlight physical distances between people. In this case, Tom Hooper and Danny Cohen decided on the wide-angle lens to further establish the lingering disconnect between the two men.

Two more cuts of the dissonant framing follow:



Tension rises as Bertie delivers the following lines: “With war looming, you’ve saddled this nation with a voiceless king. You’ve destroyed the happiness of my family all for the sake of ensnaring a star patient you couldn’t possibly hope to assist!” Simultaneously, he gets up, and the shots become handheld from here. More volatile, fluid, shaky. More lively and teeming with conflict and the need for expression.

The first handheld shot:


Bertie wallows in misery to himself. Eventually, he turns around and finds that Lionel has committed a heinous (at least to a monarch) act: he has taken a seat in St. Edward’s Chair, the King’s coronation chair. The shot that depicts this observation is slightly tilted to the right side. This is called a “dutch angle” shot, which displays a state of perturbation:


As you can observe by watching the scene linked above, an argument ensues, during which each of the two men are still framed in the same way:



The climax comes when Bertie proclaims, “I have a voice!” This is a profound line in the film, for up until this point, he has been unsure of his ability to speak and communicate. Then, a new tone washes over the scene as Bertie realizes that Lionel has succeeded in instilling confidence in him.

And, importantly, the framing changes. It subtly returns to conventional framing! Look at these two shots that follow:



From the framing, lens choices, camera stabilization changes, and other cinematographic choices, there is a clear arc to this scene supported by the shots. I hope that this analysis, although long, has provided some interesting insight into the construction of a dramatic scene. Thanks for reading. One more post on The King’s Speech will follow.

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