As a longtime Oscar junkie, I live for the end of the year and the glut of Oscar bait that floods the multiplexes. The bait is no indication of quality but it usually means a step or two up from the mindless drivel of summer that is released through much of the rest of the year. High on the list of this year’s Oscar-worthy contenders is THE KING’S SPEECH. Following his lovely, layered performance in A SINGLE MAN last year, Colin Firth tops himself as Albert, the Duke of York (known as “Bertie” to his family), the stuttering and reluctant soon-to-be King George VI, who must struggle against his debilitating speech impediment to rally a country on the brink of war. Geoffrey Rush is every bit Firth’s equal as his unorthodox speech therapist and Helena Bonham Carter sparkles at Bertie’s wife, the future Queen Elizabeth.
While I think much of the interior cinematography seems to be trying too hard to be artsy and a stronger director could have made more of the story, at least everyone pretty much stays out of the way of this trio of superb actors and David Seidler’s excellent screenplay. Giving the story even more poignancy is Alexandre Desplat‘s lovely score.
The album begins quietly with warm, rich string chords that convey the growing relationship between “Lionel and Bertie.” In the hesitating ascending chords and the descending piano line, Desplat interpolates the middle movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, more commonly known as the “Emperor” Concerto, which also closes the album and the film. The halting, unsure nature of the music captures Bertie’s struggle with speech and has yet to become the magisterial sound of England’s future “emperor.”
“The king stammers, so how can you say that in musical terms without being didactic or obvious?” Desplat asks in an interview with The Los Angeles Times. “I suggested to [director] Tom [Hooper] that we could maybe give this idea that music is not going forward. How do you do that? I suggested one note, repeated…It’s almost like a sad movement of a Schubert quartet.” That sadness centers around the solo piano and violin, which give voice to Bertie’s pain and fear.
As the piano tolls the solitary notes, the solo violin struggles to communicate as Bertie relives his tortured “Memories of Childhood.” The piano plays four-note descending motifs, the violin ascends higher and higher and the string chords gently pulse with restrained, understated emotion.
A somber string theme announces “The King Is Dead,” and that same theme gains more force as Bertie becomes a reluctant “King George VI.” Set against Desplat’s trademark staccato string accompaniment, the piano once again plays solitary pitches and the violins sigh in pain as the new monarch faces the winds of war. A poignant piano theme gives voice to Elizabeth’s love for her husband’s plight.
Leavening the historical and emotional surroundings, Desplat writes a lovely piano theme for the deepening friendship between Lionel and Bertie. The theme, first heard in “The King’s Speech,” brings humor to Lionel’s “My Kingdom, My Rules” and lightens the King’s “Fear and Suspicion.” As the friendship between the two men comes full circle, so does the theme as Lionel outlines Bertie’s coronation during “The Rehearsal.” The cue starts off with tentative repeated tones, followed by staccato strings to give it life. The theme is dissected and interpolated, accompanied by chirping woodwinds and a poignant cello countermelody. The friendship between the two men is complete.
Desplat’s music mostly plays in fits and stammers, giving tentative musical voice to the King’s speech patterns. Restrained and understated, much like the royal family themselves, the score never wears its heart on its sleeve. Desplat’s trademark orchestrations, utilizing harp and celeste, as well as the classically arranged strings, perfectly capture both the wit and gravitas of the storyline, imbuing the score with energy and emotion. He weaves his delicate music throughout the music of Beethoven and Mozart that is used in the film, fitting in nicely with those two musical giants.
Pete Cobin, Abbey Road’s chief engineer, gives Desplat’s music the proper royal treatment. Digging through the EMI archives, Cobin recovered vintage microphones owned by the British royal family and used them for the recording sessions. Cobin created his own “royal family tree” of microphones which gives the score a timbre and musical patina appropriate to the era.
Desplat’s music floats over the film, never calling attention to itself, yet always supporting the drama. The power of the score grows with each repeated listen. THE KING’S SPEECH is simply one of the finest scores I’ve heard all year.