From the moment its envelope was opened, The King’s Speech was destined to be one of those Oscar winners presented as evidence of the Academy’s middlebrow preference for competence and accents over innovation or risk. Tom Hooper’s directorial penchants for staring at his actors’ faces as they speak and taking the occasional whirl around the room with a wide-angle lens were sufficient for a stagy biopic about a stuttering royal and his vocal coach. Unfortunately, those seem to be the only tricks in his bag, and they’re hardly enough to sustain a sweeping 160-minute musical set in 19th-century France.
Hooper seems hypnotized by the human voice; any time one of his actors opens their mouth to speak, he’s compelled to shove his camera close into their face and stare in immobile awe until they finish. The effect becomes numbing, especially given the musical’s nonstop singing, much of which begins to run together into an indistinguishable muddle for the uninitiated. The die-hards who’ve kept Les Mis playing to adoring throngs for more than a quarter-century will doubtlessly applaud the adaptation’s fidelity, but you’d think the lack of live-theater staging and set changes would allow for a bit more breathing room than the film’s relentless, hurried pace.
Hooper’s decision to film the cast singing live rather than lip-syncing to playback does capture more immediate, emotional performances from most of the cast (Russell Crowe has the physical presence for Javert, but belts every line in a husky monotone, brow furrowed as if struggling to remember the next line). But some of the big numbers are show-stoppers in the negative sense. Anne Hathaway’s wrenching rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is performed in a single, uninterrupted closeup against an inky blackness — Susan Boyle’s game-show performance was more visually interesting.
In the rare moments without dialogue, Hooper’s fish-eye scans the grime-covered alleyways, a reminder that there is a world outside Hugh Jackman’s face. His rare stabs at actual production numbers, like the clumsy Richard Lester-isms of a comic piece featuring Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, suggest that artlessness may be preferable.