Image Credit: Laurie Sparham; Everett CollectionAs Bertie — er, King George VI — might say, I’m gobsmacked that Tom Hooper won this year’s top award from the Directors Guild of America over David Fincher. Hooper also won the award over Christopher Nolan. And also over Debra Granik, Darren Aronofsky, Lisa Cholodenko, Danny Boyle, Roman Polanski, and Ben Affleck. Don’t get me wrong, the director of The King’s Speech did a fine job assembling a sturdy, effective drama out of familiar, good-quality components. But by my lights, any one of those also-rans did more interesting, original, artful work than the colleague voted best in 2010 show by his colleagues.
What were those DGA voters thinking? My conclusion: They weren’t thinking; they were feeling. And they were feeling because of incalculable help provided to the director by two geniuses ineligible for an award in this or any other year to come. I’m talking, of course, about Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Without them, The King’s Speech would be filled with much emptier words.
I recently rewatched the movie to study the exact musical architecture involved in Alexandre Desplat’s discreetly hardworking score. So if/when you see it again, try to imagine what the drama would be like without Beethoven or Mozart stepping in to do heavy emotional lifting in these four crucial moments:
1. While gently rolling piano themes establish scenes of dailiness throughout the film, Mozart steps in to announce the initial unloosening of the royal speech student’s tongue: As Colin Firth/Bertie intones “To be or not to be” for a diagnostic recording (on a new-fangled machine “from America”), Geoffrey Rush/Lionel cranks up Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro on the turntable, louder and louder, to distract his client from thinking about his own speech. The grand opera has begun!
2. The men get to work — as equals, as per Logue’s rules. While they’re at it, Hooper strings together a sequence of quickfire scenes in which Bertie puts his royal best into exercises for breathing, strength, relaxation, etc. Mozart obliges again: That’s his Clarinet Concerto in A major we hear. Because, see, they’re working in concert!
3. Prince Albert, a/k/a the Duke of York, becomes King George VI. After which, nothing less than Beethoven will do. And so, although the movie’s scripted climax is the monarch’s address to his people after Great Britain declares war on Germany in 1939, the emotional climax is triggered by the awesome, sad solemnity of the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. What a combo: Majestic music composed by a musical titan who was losing his hearing, chosen to intensify the effect of words spoken by a monarch just coming into his voice. What we don’t see but only hear becomes the most important element in the whole scene. In triumph, the king emerges from his recording studio to receive the adulation of all. (A nagging question I’ve got for you about this stirring movie: Is one privileged fellow’s triumph over stuttering really that Beethoven-worthy an accomplishment while Great Britain was preparing for war?)
4. Still, bravo, good show and all that. The king, queen, and princesses proceed to wave to a cheering populace. Bertie nods to Lionel and Lionel nods to Bertie and we nod to Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush and all is well in the world of elocution. What better musical accompaniment is there, then, to lead us gently into the credits than the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major. It is, after all, known as the “Emperor Concerto.” That’s why we walk out feeling grand .
PS: Director Darren Aronofsky ought to share any Black Swan awards that come his way with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, don’t you think?