Imagine you’re second in line for the throne of England, right behind your selfish, womanizing brother, your father the King is in ill health, and you have a terrible stutter that you just can’t control. Your father despises you for the impediment, your siblings tease you about it, your country is poised to enter World War II and that older brother desires to marry an American divorcee. Except the King of England can’t marry a divorced woman, meaning you’re next in line for the throne.
The King’s Speech is a powerful and beautifully produced film about the challenge that the Duke of York faced when he was pushed into the public eye, with the role acted perfectly by Colin Firth. The film opens with the Duke addressing the public, painfully stumbling through his written speech, one stutter and pause after another, a scene that’s surprisingly affecting, with us feeling the overwhelming anxiety of the moment and frustration of the call of duty to the nation and the honor of family.
Fortunately for history, his faithful wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) finds the unorthodox Australian Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) and convinces her husband to work with him to try and cure the stutter. Masquerading as “Mr. Johnson” for his visits to Logue’s run-down Harley Street office, Firth perfectly portrays the conflict between the desire to get better, the anger and frustration at having the affliction and the embarrassment of having a disability.
Truly great films manage to instantly transport us to a world where there’s complete suspension of disbelief, where we wonder if we’re seeing actual historical footage rather than actors on sets with lighting, caterers and extras just off-camera. The King’s Speech is a splendid film that is well deserving of the awards and accolades it’s received, even as the speech therapy itself is rather blithely addressed. It’s one of my favorite films of 2010.
The simplistic speech therapies of Logue and their miraculous results were also more than a bit reminiscent of the psychological treatment that the lovely Ingrid Bergman offers Gregory Peck to astonishingly positive results in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Quick, simple solutions make for satisfying cinematic stories, but it was difficult to believe that even after he realized that “Mr. Johnson” was the Duke of York that Logue would have insisted on calling him Bertie and behaving towards him as one would to a friend at the corner pub.
My parents were children when George VI ascended to the throne of England, and their expert opinion was that Firth nailed his halting style of public address and his slight lisp, though they tell of a very sickly King, something that the film hints at but certainly doesn’t show directly. Accurate or not, it was heartbreaking to watch the Duke wrestle with his speech impediment, something that must undoubtedly be a constant frustration, particularly to one who is expected to have a strong, confident public persona.
The Duke of York (Colin Firth) works with speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush)
The performances in the film were universally strong, with a nod to Geoffrey Rush who did a splendid job of portraying Logue, though it was puzzling why he had almost no Australian accent while his wife was clearly from Oz. I also found King George V (Michael Gambon) compelling as a dying monarch who is so clearly disappointed in both his sons, seeing neither as suitable to ascend to the throne.
Edward, the immature Prince of Wales is more interested in hosting parties and particularly in the commoner American divorcee Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) than in his familial destiny. When he does become King, he abdicates so he can marry his true love, ending up exiled to the Bahamas as Governor. Avoided in the film is that the Prince was also a public Hitler sympathizer willing to surrender the nation to the Nazis: the course of war would have been dramatically different had he have stayed on the throne.
The King is an angry, unsympathetic man who pushes and browbeats the Duke after inviting him to read a speech that the King has just given and having him fail, stuttering and faltering over syllable after syllable. But was the stutter caused by this embarrassment, this lack of nurturing and love that the Duke experienced as a baby and child? Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether stuttering can be so simply diagnosed after a few informal chats, but while the performances were excellent, the story itself does lack some verisimilitude nonetheless.
Watching a film that’s this well crafted, it can be easy to miss the subtle details so when you see this movie, pay attention to the lighting. Credit to both cinematographer Danny Cohen and art director Netty Chapman: they’ve done a superb job creating a wistful, slightly nostalgic mood with lighting that enhances the regal mood of some scenes while emphasizing the intimacy of others.
Rarely does the viewing public get to see films where every person in the production hits their mark and where the story is interesting, compelling, mature and thoughtful. The King’s Speech is one of those rare films and it’s one that’s well worth seeing and discussing afterwards.