Review – The King’s Speech
There’s an awful lot of vanity in British cinema. But that narcissism leads to Oscar wins. Period films create a form of British mythology. A Victorian stiff upper lip. Drinking tea while the bombs fall on London. The King’s Speech, though stuffy, has it’s moments of unexpected inspiration, combined with charm and wit. British director Tom Hooper’s work is often biographical. He helmed mini-series like Elizabeth I, the sublime John Adams, and feature films like The Damned United. The King’s Speech is the least memorable of all his work. But this is more a testament to his previous work, than a jab at the quality of The King’s Speech. And quality it is when the mood strikes.
Albert, the Duke of York (Colin Firth), is the second son of King George V (Michael Gambon). Albert suffers from a paralyzing stammer. A speech in front of thousands at Wembley Stadium goes badly. Treatments don’t work. An exhausted, humiliated Albert is ready to give up trying until his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) persuades him to work with Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). The two men strike up an unlikely friendship. King George V dies and Albert’s brother, David the Prince of Wales, abdicates from his role as King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), leaving a terrified Albert to become King George VI.
Colin Firth has mastered the art of understatement. His performance in The King’s Speech is in his eyes. And the eyes reveal shame and fear. When he does speak the camera zooms in on his mouth. Firth’s lips twitch when Albert tries to hide a smile, they turn into a taut line when he’s frustrated. He’s paralyzed around his father, George V, a formidable old king who does not tolerate failure. Albert fights to get the words out when he does, it’s painful to watch him trip over every word. Firth’s performance is at once heartbreaking and elegant. But the Duke for all his elegance has his own expectations and feelings of entitlement. He fights Logue. To Albert’s horror, Logue insists on calling him “Bertie”. He is indignant, but deep down; he is amused in spite of it all. The final speech he gives is disguised as the pinnacle of Firth’s performance. It’s remarkable because it is so close to the real King George VI’s speech. It isn’t simply that the words are the same. It’s that Firth’s speech sounds almost identical to the real thing. The high, clipped accent. The inflections. The pauses between the words. It’s uncanny and terrific. The true pinnacle is when Firth isn’t the King, but merely Albert. He’s been crowned with history and expectation on his shoulders. He’s only king in British history to follow an abdicated king. His predecessor is alive, and Albert can’t hope to measure up to his handsome, debonair brother King Edward VIII. He breaks down in front of his wife – choking, gasping for breath as he weeps and stutters, “I’m not a king, I’m not a king.” It’s so heartbreaking, it’s almost intrusive, and it shows Firth’s ability to play any character – even a witty king – as an everyman.
Much of Lionel Logue’s methods in The King’s Speech are assumed. Despite the royal family’s affection for Logue, needing a therapist caused them enough embarrassment to rarely mention his methods in official documents. His movie methods are hilarious. Logue forces Albert to recite nursery rhymes, wave his arms about in pinwheels, and roll across his office floor. Logue appears to enjoy the indignity immensely, with Geoffrey Rush’s face twisted into a puckish grin for most of the film. In a twist of fate, the real Lionel Logue treated screenwriter David Seidler’s uncle, an uncle who thought his sessions with Logue were “absolutely rubbish”, though the uncle’s stutter did go away.
The King’s Speech is restricted by its script and is revisionist to the point of propaganda. David Seidler originally transformed his first draft into a play and it shows. Most scenes take place indoors, either in Logue’s office or Buckingham Palace, making the film claustrophobic. It makes sense. Royals are isolated from the world. Stammers make people even more isolated. But the isolation feeds the propaganda. Giving the audience a taste of the isolation is a stylish move, but isolation without a critical look at the outside world makes for oversimplified history. 2008’s Frost/Nixon also suffered from his.
For a film about a man who doesn’t speak, there’s an awful lot of talking, and an awful lot of it is trite. It’s a film that glorifies its subject’s courage. The King’s Speech speaks to your heart to the point that it sometimes screams at it. “Listen to me!” Albert insists in one of Firth’s thankfully few over-the-top moments. And the emotion is heavy-handed and manipulative even beyond its dialogue. The events themselves aren’t even in order. Lionel Logue helped Albert in 1926 – long before the outbreak of World War II, but despite that tricky timeline, The King’s Speech two-steps around dates and makes it seem as if Logue’s services were desperately needed during the abdication crisis, before the war began. In reality the king had little need for Logue by the time those crisis hit.
The King’s Speech is a throwback to Hollywood’s heyday. It’s dramatic weepie – Oscar bait. Some of it is saccharine, but it also genuinely stirring. The real events were inspiring enough to screenwriter David Seidler, who stammered as a child after the trauma of trying to escape the violence of World War II. It is a testament to Seidler’s witty and wistful dialogue, and King George’s own courage, that The King’s Speech manages to stay the course.