The Aussie media love to claim any celebrity with the slightest link to Australia. Russell Crowe, Naomi Watts, Mel Gibson, the roster is full of half breeds and ex-pats, and soon to join their ranks is filmmaker Tom Hooper.
Born in London, England to media businessman Richard, and Australian author and academic Meredith, the prolific Hooper has made a mark in both TV and feature film, with popular mini-series John Adams (starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney), and football biopic The Damned United (starring Michael Sheen) among his achievements.
While not currently a marquee name, Hooper’s work as director of the critically acclaimed The King’s Speech is sure to change that. And if the recent Oscar boost is any indication (the film was nominated for seven Golden Globes), it won’t be long until we start calling Hooper “our Tom” come awards season.
The King’s Speech tells the true life story of reluctant monarch King George VI (affectionately named Bertie, played by Colin Firth), who with the help of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), overcomes a vicious stammer which impedes his royal duties.
Usually period movies, especially those focusing on the monarchy, are dire affairs filled with lavish art direction and a never ending stream of hammy English accents, sometimes poorly delivered by non-British actors.
Yet The King’s Speech curbs the trend, thanks to Hooper’s deft eye for visuals, feel for character, and a healthy appetite for the truth.
“In royal dramas directors tend to be very preoccupied by pageantry, and theatre, and gold, and guilt, and the costumes and the service of monarchy, which doesn’t frankly interest me as much,” said Hooper. “ Any opportunity I could, I subverted it.”
While the film does accurately portray its historic elements, with Hooper one of those filmmakers “who does care about the record, does care about history, does care about truth”, it is the friendship between the stuttering King and his speech therapist which is its real strength, an element which suits Hooper just fine.
“In some ways even the idea of the film is subversive, this kind of story of two nobodies who become somebody’s because of this extreme outcome of history”, said Hooper. “What’s interesting is that the friendship theme kind of grew. I think it was almost towards the end of making that film that I kept thinking, ‘What is it that saves Bertie in the final hour?’ Is it unlocking childhood trauma? Or is it the different speech techniques?’ But in the end I thought it’s the fact that come that final hour, he’s got a friend in the room, and I think that is worth more than all of the therapy.”
Achieving that closeness was something the actors were able to fine tune during pre-production. “We did four weeks of rehearsal, which is hugely rare on movies. Geoffrey [Rush] said that this was the only movie he ever done, where the rehearsal was like doing a play.”
The portray of a disability in film can be a tricky endeavour, and for Hooper finding the right balance of how to portray the King’s stutter proved to be just that. “There were so many pitfalls”, Hooper explained. “It could be comedic. It could be so agonizing for the audience in the cinema. It could be so slow that by the end of 100 min you’re only on the fourth scene. Or, you could run scared of it. And I would say that was Colin’s fear, that he didn’t want to do too much, and my big challenge to him was kind of going, no, I want him to have more, and that was kind of shocking to him.”
Also relevant was the emergence of new technologies in the media, especially the radio which quickly became the tool used by the monarchy to communicate with their subjects during the dire period of World War II.
“The film charts the beginning of that extraordinary process of the mass media transforming leadership”, said Hooper. “In the generation before, the King was a visual icon. Bertie could look visually waving from a carriage, he could look visually in a uniform on a horse, he could fill the iconographic role of King, but with the coming of radio the question became can the King project emotional connection through the way he speaks to the nation, and we’ve inherited that anxiety about emotional connection.”
“And that started with King George VI, the coming of radio and of the microphone, and of course Bertie was such an extreme case, because the guy had a basic problem with communication in the first place, which was so subtle.”
In the end that subtle struggle within the King brings with it a powerful wallop in what many have dubbed an emotionally satisfying film, and one that has clearly moved its director.
“I think [the film] ended up becoming kind of powerful, imagine in the Second World War the King is reaching out to you and you’re suffering during the war, and he’s saying that I connect. It has a particular authenticity from a man who already understands suffering because for him to even speak to you is an ordeal. And I think it actually gave him a curious kind of quiet authority throughout the war, which is well remembered.”
The King’s Speech is released in Australia on December 26th