Not So Ordinary Communication: Cinematography in THE KING’S SPEECH
27 February 2011
No other industry composes time period dramas like the British and The King’s Speech is no exception. In many ways, the film is quintessential; the stunning costumes, moving score, brilliant performances, and majestic sets exemplify the high standard of a quality cinematic contribution. However, cinematography in The King’s Speech is far from typical, specifically the recurrent, exaggerated uses of lead room (or nose room).
From the onset, The King’s Speech employs the traditional, logical use of lead room: vacant space in a shot leading the audiences’ eyes to action not captured, or about to be captured. In fairness, the film also uses a great deal of head room, often usedwith lead room; however, the lead room is richer. Generally, the film embraces the space to the left and right of frames to convey meaning more strikingly than space at the top.
An example of standard lead room in the film is the opening sequence as Bertie (Colin Firth) prepares to deliver his speech at Wembley Stadium. As Bertie waits to ascend a flight of stairs toward the microphone he rests against a white brick wall. From the top of the stairs, a gentleman calls for Bertie to climb up. Cutting back to Bertie, the camera captures him still against the white wall looking up at the man calling; however, Bertie is at the bottom-right of the frame; the rest of the space is vacant. Although exaggerated, this is a common, easily understood use of lead room. The vacant space is symbolically filled with the action of the man calling for Bertie; the space leads the audience’s attention to action happening outside of, yet influencing the frame.
However, this is not the only use of lead room in the film. Another variation of the technique employed in The King’s Speech keeps the actors to the far left or right of the frame to capture something significant in the background, often times a door, hallway, or corridor. This use of lead room adds complexity, depth, and importance to the mise-en-scene/mise-en-shot.
A clear example of this second use of lead room is the scene in which Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) first meets Lionel (Geoffrey Rush) in the waiting room of his office. During their conversation, the camera captures Elizabeth to the far right of the frame with an open door behind her at the far left. Although the door is several feet behind Elizabeth, she and the door balance each other in the frame. Elizabeth’s venture to the office is fueled by hope, and the open door behind her, which is just as much a presence in the scene as she is, greatly symbolizes that; Elizabeth is hopeful Lionel can cure her husband’s stammer and she is open, like the door, to his unconventional method.
What makes the meaning derived from this non-traditional use of lead room more profound is, during this scene, when the camera cuts to Lionel, he is also captured to the far left of the frame, yet there is no doorway, hallway, or corridor to the far right to balance the frame; however, Lionel is literally standing in a doorway. Elizabeth’s open door is her open-mindedness and willingness, and Lionel’s placement in a doorway symbolizes his preparedness and assurance in curing her husband’s stammer.
However, in the shots of Lionel, this unbalanced use of lead room lures audiences’ eyes to the vacant space, which, in this specific example, seems unnecessary and distracting. Because Lionel is to the far left of the frame, it is natural for the eye to look to the right; the eye is looking for the action or a balance. In this scene, and others, there is nothing for the eye to find. This is the film’s third and most unusual use of lead room.
This seemingly needless use of lead room is the most difficult to assimilate. Initially, it seems as though there are frames, like the one with Lionel, which minimize the actor to a portion of the frame and leave vast amounts of vacant space not capturing or leading the eye to anything of importance. Another strong example of this displaced use of lead room is when Bertie sits on the couch in front of Lionel’s abstract wall during his first session. Bertie is located in the bottom-left of the frame and the wall takes up the majority of the space. The lead room is to the right, but there is absolutely nothing and no one toward the right commanding attention. The frame almost feels, for a moment, an aesthetic style designed to make the film showy, or more visually striking, yet fails because it is meaningless.
Yet, the (un)lead room is far from meaningless; the unconventionality of these frames visually communicate the unconventionality of the entire narrative. What is more unconventional than a man who refuses to call a prince by his title and cares for royalty under the false premise that he is medically certified to perform these treatments? It is meaningful Lionel is off-centered in his frame; Lionel is unconventional. Furthermore, what is more unconventional than a prince in line for the throne of England, one of the most powerful empires in the world, who cannot verbally communicate? Additionally, said prince will take the throne on the eve of World War II; a war generated by a man (Adolf Hitler) whose mastery of verbal communication influenced people to carry out horrific, inhumane acts of brutality. The imbalance in frames of The King’s Speech, employed through its own variation of lead room, supports the skewed disparity of the narrative.
There are so many things off-balance in the narrative it is only fitting the expression of the narrative visually account for the imbalance. Overall, The King’s Speech experiments spatially, specifically through standard and irregular uses of lead room to find the best cinematic language to communicate the story.