In a memorable scene from “The King’s Speech,” the future George VI (Colin Firth), a.k.a. Bertie, spews every expletive imaginable as a technique to overcome his severe stutter with the help of an unorthodox speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). As f-words flow, a hand-held camera or Steadicam – a stabilizing device that attaches a camera to its operator—follows Firth as he gesticulates and sputters around Logue’s cavernous consulting room.
This cinematic waltz comes courtesy of the film’s director of photography, Danny Cohen, BSC, an Oscar nominee for best cinematographer who previously worked with “King’s Speech” director Tom Hooper on the HBO mini-series “John Adams.” “Instead of the camera being right in Colin’s face, it made sense to back away, so you can really see his body in motion,” Cohen said of the mobile camera work. “Therefore Colin had more space to be physical, and the freedom to go anywhere in that room and do anything he wanted to do.”
“The scene is funny because it’s shocking,” Cohen, 47, added from his London home. “I think at heart everyone is a child, so when you see a grownup swear, especially the future king of England, it’s very funny. What was even funnier is that there were swear words they [axed from] the final cut that were even more obscene. The character is reveling in the fact that he’s finding his voice, literally and metaphorically, but he’s also mischievous and having a laugh. That’s the balance we were going for in the film in general: to tell a serious story that also has a lot of humor.”
Just as he did on the “Adams” shoot, Cohen used hard light, rather than the softer hues often associated with period dramas, to make the World War II-era saga appear grittier and more contemporary. “Tom wanted a take on a historical drama that wasn’t standard fare,” Cohen said. “If you make things appear real rather than pretty, the film becomes more intelligible to a modern audience. You want to see the grime on the street and underneath people’s fingernails.” The cold light in the film warms up somewhat as the relationship warms between Logue and his excruciatingly uncomfortable patient.
“Cinematography can push the narrative forward, so anything you can do that makes the audience understand as much as possible as quickly as possible, helps tell the story in a more succinct and visceral way.”
The king’s anxiety is depicted via a range of visual language: faces pressed up against the side of a frame, for example; heads placed on the wrong side of the screen than viewers might expect; and wide-angle lenses on a camera placed close Firth—at times just a foot away; literally, in his face.
“The wider the lens, and the closer you put it to an actor, distorts the face and makes the person look as if they feel more and more awkward,” Cohen said. “The line you draw is how distorted you want people to look. Any time Colin was giving a speech into a microphone, we shot on a 14mm or 21mm lens [the smaller the number, the wider the lens], which are not lenses that distort too massively. It was just enough to create that sense of the king’s discomfort.”
Cohen feels a personal connection to the story: His maternal grandparents were German Jews who fled the Third Reich in 1933 to London, where they listened to George VI’s passionate anti-Nazi speeches on the radio. The movie depicts George VI’s older brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), who abdicates the throne to marry an American divorcee – as the Nazi sympathizer that he was. “We didn’t use anything specific to make him look like a designer ‘baddie,’” Cohen recalled, “but what was quite exciting about filming Guy Pearce is that physically he actually looks a lot like Edward, which is an amazing piece of casting. There’s that tightness in his face when he is onscreen.”
One scene in particular resonates for the Jewish cinematographer: “It’s the one in which the king and his family are watching a film of his coronation on a black-and-white projector—and then a clip of Hitler at a rally comes on,” he said. “One of George’s children asks, ‘What is [Hitler] saying,’” and the king replies, ‘I don’t know what he’s saying, but he’s saying it terribly well.’ That’s an incredibly powerful line, because Hitler is sort of the antithesis to Bertie’s character, who can’t say things very well. And there was fluency to whatever [evil things] Hitler might have said. The delivery was always better than how Bertie could deliver his speeches, so that was a quite interesting, complex contradiction.”