Movie Review – The King’s Speech (2010)
by HELEN GEIB
In September, 1939, King George VI delivered an address to the nation over the radio. It was his first speech as a wartime monarch, and it is the climax of The King’s Speech.
The title also refers to the king’s speech impairment: he had suffered from a severe stammer since early childhood. Bertie (Colin Firth)- his nickname inside the family; short for his given name of Albert- had been treated by doctors and experts over many years without success. Quite understandably, he dreaded public speaking. The film opens with a re-creation of another real speech, before a crowd of thousands some 15 years before the climactic address, that was an excruciating ordeal. The first effective treatment is by an Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Bertie’s speech slowly improves and over the years, he and Lionel become close friends.
The King’s Speech is a biopic built around the friendship between the odd couple of outgoing, unconventional Lionel and reticent, proper Bertie. While much of the story is set outside the consulting room, the friendship storyline is our main window to Bertie’s personality. For example, the film gives us scenes of Bertie with his father George V (Michael Gambon), mother, and brother David (Guy Pearce), briefly King Edward VIII, to give us a taste of the dysfunctional royal family dynamic, but the most revealing insights come in candid conversations with Lionel.
The notable exception to this storytelling pattern is Bertie’s happy home life with his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and two young daughters. Unlike the rest of his life, the marriage doesn’t carry emotional baggage.
“The king’s speech” is introduced by a street scene picture of people hurrying to an air raid shelter as sirens blare through the city. It’s an efficient reminder that George VI was king of England the last time it mattered who was king.
The film builds to this point by interspersing scenes on the succession crisis with the personal drama. Meetings between Bertie and his father tell us the king didn’t believe either his first or second son had what it took to fill his shoes (and wasn’t shy about telling them so), especially not with world affairs in the state they were in. Bertie’s conversations with David amply bear out their father’s judgment of the older son, while meetings with the prime minister and others in the government tell us that the people in the know welcomed Edward VIII’s abdication- after just a year on the throne- because he was a dissolute lightweight with pro-fascist sympathies.
The historical background is deftly filled in to give weight to the king’s struggle to overcome his affliction: he’s desperate to speak well because in an age of demagogues out for England’s blood, whether he speaks well matters- matters terribly. The history lesson never overwhelms the story, however, or even threatens to.
For one, the characters are far too vivid and interesting. The film is very much performance driven. With performances this good, that’s no slur against the generally excellent behind-the-scenes filmmaking either. The occasional piece of awkwardly written exposition doesn’t stand a chance against the acting.
For another, the story’s too good. Assisted by its subject’s characteristic English reserve, the film strikes an ideal balance between heavy emotional scenes and humorous interludes. And it’s honestly inspirational, without plot contrivances or cloying sentimentality. Bertie’s determination and achievement is inspirational, and so is the power of Lionel’s friendship.
King’s Speech director Tom Hooper’s prior film is also a biopic with a fantastic lead performance, but the films’ subjects could not be more different. Michael Sheen starred as English football coach and lightning rod for controversy Brian Clough in The Damned United.