Friday Film Focus: The King’s Speech

The year was 1939. The king was George VI. Britain was entering into war with Hitler’s Germany. His listeners required strength and clarity — not stammers punctuated with endless silence. This was a man who never wanted to be king. After the death of his father, the throne was to pass to his older brother Edward. But when Edward — in one of the most scandalous events of that time — abdicated the throne, the duty fell to Prince Albert.

Albert was father of the present Queen Elizabeth. He had struggled with speech from an early age. When a quarter of the world’s population looked to England during WWII, its own people doubted the competence of their stammering king. To face a radio microphone and know the British Empire is listening must have been terrifying. The King’s Speech was directed by the amazing Tom Hooper (Les Miserables, The Danish Girl). This film is a crowning achievement powered by a dream cast. It digs vibrant human drama out of the dry dust of history.

Hooper opens up the film in 1925. Words stick in Prince Albert’s mouth, and his silences between syllables fill up the stadium. He seizes in agony in order to make the words come out just right. His wife Elizabeth (the superb Helena Bonham Carter) is filled with sympathy. With her performance, Carter creates miracles with subtle gestures and longing looks. As it becomes clearer that Edward’s (Guy Pearce) obsession with his married American divorcée Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) is incurable, she realizes her husband may face more public humiliation.

His father, George V (Michael Gambon) has always considered Albert (also known as “Bertie” to the family) superior to that of his brother Edward. However, he mourns the introduction of newsreels and radio — which will require a monarch being heard on public occasions. As a child, Bertie was the shy sickly son with a debilitating stutter. Albert sees various recommended speech therapists — one of whom tries the old marbles in the mouth routine. Nothing ultimately ends up working. Elizabeth then seeks out a failed Australian actor named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Logue happened to set up a speech therapy practice in the city.

As eccentric as Albert is reserved, Logue enters the film in a flourish — insisting that they meet in his shabby office. Logue also wants permission to call his royal client (then the Duke of York) by his informal nickname “Bertie.” His highness goes into “royal” mode in the presence of his commoner, and Firth’s shocking reaction is priceless. Albert has been raised within the bubble of the monarchy and objects to such treatment. This isn’t because he has an elevated opinion of himself. Rather, it’s because it just isn’t done.  It’s an ideal odd coupling, and Hooper is able to jump from one zippy voice lesson to the next. He pauses ever so often to wring a few tears. Logue eventually realizes that if he is to become the king’s therapist, he must first become his friend. It’s uproarious to watch Lionel prod Bertie to lose his control — forcing him to sing out a symphony of shit-f*ck-bugger swearing (all stammer free). Before you know it, Elizabeth is sitting on Bertie’s chest during an exercise while he lies on Lionel’s floor. Both Firth and Rush rise to the acting occasion by growling and twinkling. Their characters warily circle each other before settling into their therapeutic swing of things. The duo unknowingly prepares for the big speech that gives the film its title.

Albert’s impediment certainly pales in comparison with the drama surrounding his older brother, Edward. Mr. Pearce is incredible as Edward. He mercurially slides between levels of imperiousness and desperation. He creates a thorny tangle of complications in only a few scenes. When he viciously taunts Bertie, you see the entirety of their cruel childhood flashing between them. But this film finds a more interesting story about better people. It’s the psychological struggle between the formal king and the expansive Logue that creates the lifelong, heartwarming friendship. Carter is a revelation here. Filled with tact and warmth, she understands her husband better than he understands himself. Rush is absolutely wonderful and supremely confident in his own expertise (even when challenged with such a star pupil).

As a veteran actor, he won’t yield an inch. The film would go on to win four Oscars — including Best Director for Hooper and Best Actor for Firth. In the wider sphere, Hitler takes power, war comes closer, and the dreaded day approaches when Bertie (now King George VI) will have to speak to the world and declare war. Hooper’s handling of the scene is beyond masterful. Firth internalizes his intentions and fears with a stiff upper lip. All the while, his household and staff is terrified. It is the one scene in the film that must work, and it does beautifully. As he marches toward a microphone as if it is a guillotine, Rush stands like a conductor in front of the king as he delivers the speech of his life.

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