The United Kingdom suffered one of its worst constitutional crises in living memory in the early 1930s. Following the death of King George V, his eldest son David ascended to the throne as King Edward VIII, but his insistence on marrying Wallis Simpson - a commoner, a divorcee, and worst of all an American - brought criticism from the political and religious leaders of the time. Forced with a choice between his kingdom and the woman he loved, Edward chose the latter, leaving his younger brother Bertie to reluctantly take over as King George VI. However, suddenly becoming the monarch of over a third of the world's population did not sit well with the new king, who was forced to deal with two issues at the beginning of his reign: firstly, the growing influence of German chancellor Adolf Hitler threatening peace in Europe, and secondly the King's own terrible stutter, which often rendered him literally speechless on important occasions. To counteract the latter, the King sought out the help of an unconventional Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue. Director Tom Hooper's excellent film The King's Speech tells the story of the unconventional friendship of the pair; it stars Colin Firth as George VI, Geoffrey Rush as Logue, and Helena Bonham-Carter as Queen Elizabeth, Guy Pearce as Edward, and Michael Gambon as the ailing George V.
The music for The King's Speech is by Alexandre Desplat, and is his fifth score of 2010, following the thriller The Ghost Writer, the comedy Tamara Drewe, the political drama The Special Relationship and the first part of the fantastical Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Despite having tackled five different genres in 2010 alone, Desplat is apparently becoming the go-to-guy when it comes to writing music for the British monarchy and British political life; having already written the critically acclaimed score for The Queen in 2006, he is now turning his attention to the life of her father. Clearly, should films be made of the lives of Edward VII and Queen Victoria, Desplat will be your man.
However, whereas The Queen dressed up the current British monarchy with contemporary rhythmic ideas more suited to depictions of modern life, Desplat treats the pre-WWII royals with a much more classical flavor. Written for a medium-sized orchestra with emphasis on strings, piano and the usual light woodwinds, The King's Speech is a delightful, occasionally quite whimsical score, in much the same vein as recent works such as Cheri and Coco Avant Chanel. Long-time listeners will be pleased to learn that there is nary a waltz in sight in The King's Speech, but the effortless sense of classicism, crystal clear orchestrations, precise tempos and charming warmth is still there in spades.
Desplat's elegant main theme, as heard in "The King's Speech", "The Royal Household" and at the end of "Fear and Suspicion", is lush and florid but just a little light-hearted. It's full of movement and grace, with a pretty piano line, sprightly pizzicato accompaniments, and occasional moments for effervescent chimes, and captures perfectly the hustle and bustle of 1930s London and the occasionally irritating pomp and circumstance of real royal life without coming across as stuffy or overly-officious. Similarly, the music which accompanies the numerous scenes between the two unlikely friends, best heard in the opening "Bertie and Lionel", is a charming and warm string and piano piece with occasional accents for soft flutes and harps, a tender reflection of their unusual relationship, Lionel's decidedly unconventional but engaging personality, and the apparent absurdity of his therapeutic techniques, which of course work like a charm.
As the central plot of the film deals with the King and his speech impediment, parts of Desplat's score mirror this through the music. One of the score's recurring motifs (first heard in "The King's Speech", elaborated upon "My Kingdom My Rules", and which features prominently in "Memories of Childhood" and "Queen Elizabeth") is intentionally unresolved and cyclical, insinuating a similar lack of resolution in the King's voice. Bertie cannot get his words out, stuttering over the same syllable repeatedly, and the music follows suit, never quite managing to develop beyond a brief thematic presence: a solo piano chord with a string sustain over the top. It's not minimalism in the same way that Philip Glass repeats the same phrase over and over again, but it has the same intellectual ideas behind it, and illustrates the core issue of the film well without being blindingly obvious. This theme finally breaks out of its shell in the lovely "The Rehearsal", when the stammering motif and the main theme play in counterpoint to each other as the King and Lionel make the final preparations for his coronation in Westminster Abbey. The addition of flighty woodwind accents and a more lyrical piano line to the music makes this cue an album highlight, albeit a brief one.
Some darker string-led material features in "The King is Dead", "Memories of Childhood", "King George VI" and "The Threat of War", parts of which are a little reminiscent of the more choppy and dissonant material from his Harry Potter score, and which reminds us that the life of a monarch can be as tragic as anyone else's. The final two cues, "Speaking Unto Nations" and "Epilogue", do not feature any Desplat music, and instead are relatively straightforward performances of two Beethoven classical pieces, the Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony, and the Adagio from the Emperor Piano Concerto. Desplat and director Hooper apparently decided to score the finale with these two pieces as a reflection of their place in British public consciousness alongside the King's famous broadcast rallying the nation behind Prime Minister Winston Churchill against the forces of Nazi Germany.
Another interesting aspect of the score is its recording. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times Desplat revealed that his engineer, Peter Cobbin, located the original personalized microphones that were made for the royal family (replicas of which actually appear in the film) in a storeroom at Abbey Road in London, and used them in order to capture an authentically "old fashioned" sound during the recording session. Although the end result is a recording which, in parts, sounds a little distant (especially in the opening cue, "Lionel and Bertie"), one has to applaud the clever little ways Desplat and his team approach the score, and the lengths to which they go to make the music sound as appropriate as possible.
The score for The King's Speech has been roundly praised by many mainstream critics, and is likely to be a strong contender for an Oscar nomination when the names are read in 2011. It's not Desplat's best score of 2010 - that accolade remains firmly in the hands of Harry Potter - but it is an enjoyable little work which compares favorably with earlier scores such as The Luzhin Defence, Girl With a Pearl Earring, and the aforementioned The Queen, Cheri and Coco Avant Chanel. If you're not already a fan of Desplat's work in the genre, The King's Speech is not going to convert you, but his admirers will enjoy it immensely.