Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

The King’s Speech

Review Date: 11-22-2010

Release Date: 11-26-2010 (USA)

Runtime: 118 min.

Period: 1925 – 1939

Costume Designer: Jenny Beavan

The King’s Speech details the reluctant rise of Prince Albert to the throne of King of England in 1936. Specifically, the story is told through the lens of his speech defect – Prince Albert had a severe stutter, and had difficulty speaking publicly and privately. Thematically, the film is about overcoming obstacles including sibling rivalry, bullying, public perception, and perhaps most importantly, the obstacle of one’s self and lack of self-esteem. The film is exquisitely made, and will no doubt be rewarded for its many merits, including stellar performances all around.

Based on the true story of England’s King George VI, the story begins with Prince Albert (Colin Firth) and his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) ascending the stairs at Wembley Stadium in 1925. Prince Albert has to deliver a speech. It’s pure pain, as he stammers and pauses for inordinate amounts of time. It’s as painful for everyone listening as it is for Albert and Elizabeth.

Elizabeth seeks help for him, in the form of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist who comes highly recommended. She visits his dilapidated office/studio, and entreats him to help her husband. Logue will only see patients at his shabby studio. He will not travel; they must come to him. Unaccustomed to this kind of hindrance, Elizabeth reluctantly agrees.

Albert tries to tell a story to his daughters Elizabeth (Freya Wilson) and Margaret (Ramona Marquez), but can barely get the words out. It is clear that his speech impediment is an open wound. Meanwhile, Logue auditions for a play at a local theater. He is awful, and in a snide moment, the director insults him for being Australian.

Albert and Elizabeth show up at Logue’s studio to begin treatment. There, a young boy walks out and talks to them, telling them that Logue will be out in a moment. At the end of the sentence, he stammers. Logue emerges; the child is his patient, and the announcement an assignment – a boy who, in the first sessions, could not even speak. Albert is intrigued.

In their first session, Logue instructs Albert to read aloud from Hamlet. Albert sputters and stammers, and, frustrated, claims it’s impossible. Logue then places earphones on Albert’s ears and blasts music. Sets up a phonograph recorder. “Read it again,” he says. Unbeknownst to himself, Albert reads flawlessly. Thinking that he messed it up, he rips off the headphones and storms out. Logue gives him a copy of the record to take home.

King George V (Albert’s father, played by Michael Gambon) reads the Christmas address to his kingdom on the radio. He lashes out at Albert for not being able to do the same. “Get on with it; spit it out,” he grumbles. Exhausted and defeated, Albert listens to records in his pajamas. He grabs the record Logue gave him and plays it – he hears his perfect speaking voice. And so, too, does his wife.

Thus begins the long relationship between Lionel Logue and Prince Albert. Along the way, Albert’s older brother Edward (heir to the throne, Guy Pearce) gets involved with the married American Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). If Edward wants to marry Wallis, he must abdicate the throne, giving up his title. What this means is that Albert becomes King of England. This is not something that Albert wants, but when the time comes (King George V dies, Edward abdicates) he must rise to the occasion.

Guy Pearce as Edward

Guy Pearce as Edward

Logue coaches and helps him through his coronation, despite the protests of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Derek Jacobi), who deems Logue “unqualified”. When Hitler’s true war plan becomes evident, Albert (now King George VI) declares war on Germany. In so doing, he needs to make a speech to comfort his people and galvanize them into action. It’s a six-page long speech, and faced with the task of delivering this important message, he freaks out.

"Walking the plank" to deliver the big speech

"Walking the plank" to deliver the big speech

Logue coaches him through it, and Albert/King George VI pulls it off beautifully. Seems all of England was holding his or her collective breath, and even in the worst of times, everyone was allowed to exhale a bit at that small victory.

The film is serious, moving, and hilarious all at the same time. It is tricky to do a film that is based on actual events – one doesn’t want to take liberties, especially when dealing with someone as revered (and publicly chronicled) as a monarch. The King’s Speech treads lightly through some sticky territory, and ultimately succeeds because the key characters are so likeable. Moments of ugliness (and one can only imagine that in reality there were ugly, ugly moments) were dealt with in an impressionistic manner, and this worked well to keep the momentum of the film skipping along in a hopeful direction.

In this film, everyone faces obstacles. Albert has, of course, his speech impediment. He also has a bully of a brother, an overbearing and insensitive father, and a cold mother. In addition to the stammer, he had stomach ailments and knock-knees, and was constantly teased for these perceived shortcomings. For as privileged a life as he had growing up, he faced the same obstacles that many children do today, all around the world, in all economic brackets.

Logue as the "commoner"

Logue as the "commoner"

Logue faces obstacles in the film as well – his antipodean heritage, his lack of degree in speech therapy, and his desire (but ultimate inability) to act well. On this level, they seem to find common ground. Logue serves as both speech therapist and emotional therapist to Albert. Logue seems to understand the connection between the emotional and the physical, that there is almost always an emotional/psychological component to stuttering that requires exploration and reconciliation before healing can occur.

The costumes in this film are absolutely perfect. It was such a joy to watch and to look forward to the next scene, to the next costume change. The costumes were in no way distracting, but they were impeccable, and Jenny Beavan and her crew deserve recognition for their excellent work.

There is no shortage of research material with regard to Albert/King George VI and his family. There are mountains of photographs and newsreels. When you have a master like Jenny Beavan executing the look, her attention to detail and adherence to what was “realistic” is a foregone conclusion. What is impressive is the way in which the costumes serve the story, and this is no accident.

The real King George VI, wife Elizabeth, and daughter (now Queen) Elizabeth - photo ca 1930s.

The real King George VI, wife Elizabeth, and daughter (now Queen) Elizabeth - photo ca 1930s.

Albert/George VI is pure aristocratic perfection. His suits are perfectly tailored, custom-made (or as the Brits say, bespoke), and they fit him like a glove. He is every bit as upper crust as they come. You see the finest fabrics and tailoring, and he looks every inch the monarch.

Singing his vowels!

Singing his vowels!

His ceremonial uniform is exquisite. The fit is flawless, and all of the trimming and ribbons are amazing.

Geoffrey Rush as Logue is a revelation. He is superb in this role as the eccentric linguist, and his costumes reflect the deep divide between “commoner” and “aristocrat”. His tweedy, less-fitted three-piece suits blend seamlessly with his shabby, scarred studio. The production design is superb, as well, and these elements together help to unambiguously define Logue and his loosely sketched world. The contrast between loosely sketched and tightly buttoned is stark. It’s brilliant.

The real jewel in all of this, however, is Elizabeth (we now know her as the “Queen Mum”). Every single one of her costumes is exquisite – from dressing gown to evening gown, she looks like a million bucks, just as a royal should.

When she first meets Logue, her veil makes a bit of a statement to 2010’s eyes: I shield myself from you. There is a divide between her world and Logue’s. Back in the 1930s, a veil was not at all uncommon, but seen through today’s lens, there is a certain distance created by a veil that we don’t have these days.

The Queen Mum was always very fond of hats, and it is lovely to see the genesis of that love depicted in this film. Oh, the hats. Whoever created these confections, good on you. I can’t find a milliner listed in the credits, but his/her work is beautiful.

One thing worth talking about here is the use of fur. As costume designers, sometimes we find ourselves in an ethical quagmire. To use fur? Or not to use fur? I shudder at the thought of animals dying for the sake of a film. I think the responsible answer might be: vintage fur. Recycling vintage pieces (collars, cuffs, cutting apart vintage fur garments and using them in a new context) achieves the same result without proliferating the fur trade. I know that many of you are concerned toward this end, and I thought I should respond to your concerns. I can’t speak for what was done on this film, but considering their use of fur, it seems apropos.

There were thousands of background players, and they all looked remarkably well-dressed… whether they were factory workers or assistants to the royal family.  The sheer number of BG was staggering, and I wondered how much second-unit shooting they must have done to get all of the coverage.  It was really brilliant work, and the costume supervisor (Marco Scotti) and assistant costume designer (Alison Beard) certainly must take some credit for that, as well.  Really lovely work, everyone.

I strongly recommend this film to you not only for the beautiful costumes, but also for the lovely story and fantastic performances. It is a satisfying film-going experience, and I hope that this film gets all the attention it deserves for telling a wonderful and compelling story. Definitely not for kids based on a few hilarious foul-mouthed scenes, but adult audiences will walk away with a smile. Please go see it!!


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