The King's Speech Review
It is generally well know that King George VI – Bertie, as he is known within the family – (Colin Firth) suffered from a stammer, but the sheer existential terror that it held for a man in his position is something perhaps only few have fully grasped – until The King's Speech that is, which conveys it all with lucid immediacy. The father figure, King George V (Michael Gambon) is a stern and formidable character, and his two eldest sons are like the two sides of a coin as regards defective personalities. David, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), is an extrovert, openly rebellious ‘bounder’, whilst Bertie is quieter, a victim of lack of confidence and repressed anger which flares up in the occasional temper tantrum – a character who in more modern psychological parlance would be described as ‘passive-aggressive’.
It is this territory that the film explores, as Bertie, then the Duke of York, is driven to despair by the embarrassment of failed public speaking attempts and seeks the help of an unconventional speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Logue practises a kind of psychotherapy, building up a rapport with his patients, insisting on using first names and attempting to probe the personality problems underlying a speech impediment – techniques he developed from dealing with shell-shocked soldiers in World War I. At first Bertie is highly resistant to any such delving beneath the surface of the purely mechanical, and he storms off more than once before a strong bond develops between the two men. Their relationship is set against the backdrop of famous historical events – the father’s death, the brother’s abdication and the rise of Hitler – all of it stoking the tension and bringing Bertie’s anguish to a climax.
At first it appears that The King's Speech might be falling all too easily into the familiar groove of British movies that treat historical events with an overly chirpy formulaic lightweightedness – the recent Made in Dagenham being a good example. But what elevates it is the quality of the acting, with the ever-reliable Geoffrey Rush supporting a fantastic central performance from Colin Firth, who conveys every tick, every nuance of the perilous frustration of a man boxed in and checkmated by circumstances, who has greatness thrust upon him against his will and must somehow, anyhow, rise to the occasion. The vulnerability and the fits of anger are perfectly captured, and the spectacle of a 1930s royal swearing his head off is totally convincing. Colin Firth is certainly extending his range in playing more complex, emotionally wounded characters – such as the bereaved George in A Single Man – and this performance will inevitably be hugely feted.
Together Bertie and Lionel perform an a kind of odd-couple double act, sweeping aside convention and ruffling the feathers of established royal advisers, such as Archbishop Cosmo Lang (Derek Jacobi), whose presence cannot help evoke memories of another great regal stammering performance – the Roman Emperor Claudius. In a terrific ensemble cast, Helena Bonham Carter portrays a very sympathetic Queen Elizabeth, and Guy Pearce is spot on as Edward VIII, with the well-worn story of Mrs Simpson (Eve Best) and the abdication crisis being seen from a fresh perspective. As regards politicians of the day, Timothy Spall’s Churchill has too much hair and too obvious mannerisms, but Anthony Andrews’ Baldwin is very convincing.
Another good thing about the movie is the sense of period arising from production design – in particular the inner sanctums of the ’30s almost steampunk BBC. The paramount importance of radio – then the one and only form of live media – comes across throughout, and the trepidation of facing one of those big, clunky old microphones is truly felt.
Inevitably in the closing stages the film builds to a rousing feelgood finale, but with the weight of real drama behind it and careful, measured direction, it is truly moving. Yes, this is crowd-pleasing cinema, but it’s also a testament to the great health of traditional British filmmaking at the dawn of 2011.