WFTB Score: 17/20
The plot: The stammering Duke of York, nicknamed ‘Bertie’, does everything he can to avoid the public spotlight. But history is to thrust greatness upon him, as elder brother David/Edward VIII finds the crown weighs all too heavily on his head. As Bertie becomes George VI, he comes to rely on unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue to help him prepare for some very significant public duties.
It’s 1925, and gruff monarch George V (Michael Gambon) encourages his family to speak to the peoples of the British Empire by way of the new-fangled sound radio. For Albert (Colin Firth) – the Duke of York to the public, ‘Bertie’ to his family – the closing speech at the Empire Exhibition is pure torture, because he suffers from a debilitating stammer which becomes crippling when magnified by the pressure of speaking in public. The humiliation doesn’t seem to matter much – after all, elder brother the Prince of Wales (Guy Pearce) is destined to succeed – but Bertie’s wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) is worried enough to seek help from stuffy experts.
When traditional methods prove useless, Elizabeth turns to the less conventional assistance offered by Australian sometime actor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Logue’s methods and manner with royalty are both unusually direct, and his lack of deference (he dares to call the king ’Bertie’) sends the Duke into a rage.
Amazingly, Albert doesn’t stammer when he’s angry, swearing, or singing, and Logue uses these tools to make progress, though his patient resists any idea of being psychoanalysed. A good thing, too, since the death of George V in 1936 thrusts an unwilling Edward VIII and his lover, married American Wallace Simpson (Eve Best) into the spotlight. The country won’t support their king marrying a divorcee, but they’re equally unlikely to rally behind a king who can’t get his words out; with Hitler’s Nazi’s causing trouble, that could be a massive problem for Britain. Bertie, accepting his duties as George VI, needs to shed his stammer and his self-doubt if he‘s going to gird the country‘s loins for the inevitable war to come; and despite the odd disagreement, the king needs Lionel at his side to give him a voice.
During an early Christmas address, Gambon’s old king has a great line in which he grumbles that radio has reduced the monarchy to the lowest possible role – that of an actor. It must be a self-knowing joke, because The King’s Speech is first and last an actor’s film; and to a great extent, that actor is Colin Firth. On a purely technical level, his portrayal of Albert’s stammer is both utterly convincing, aided no end by some great sound editing; but more than that, the speech impediment, and the way he uses it, is incredibly moving.
In part, Bertie is soft, a father doting on Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret to compensate for his own rough upbringing: as we and Logue slowly discover, he was bullied by his father, elder brother and nanny, and grieved for his epileptic brother Johnnie. In another part, he’s unable to express his anger and rage, making him fear that he is weak and unworthy of the responsibility heading his way. And in another part still, there is both a sly, self-deprecating humour and a smidgen of resolve in the Duke’s demeanour, which gives us hope that when he most needs to, he will deliver the speech of his life. It’s a major feat that Firth has put all this into Bertie, yet made him entirely human, believable, and – whatever you might think of royalty – very likeable.
Geoffrey Rush’s calm, underplayed performance is the exact opposite of Firth’s (Rush had his own brush with stammering stardom in Shine, of course); and this is why it’s every bit as good. He is the solid centre around which Bertie orbits, someone who tells it like it is and doesn’t give a damn about titles; we even get a glimpse of Lionel’s own frustrations, the failed actor in a grotty, peeling office. Also excellent are Bonham Carter and Gambon (Timothy Spall, fruitily taking off Winston Churchill, makes up a mini-Harry Potter reunion), and Pearce also convinces as David/Edward VIII, the playboy whose pleasure-seeking makes him deeply unsuitable for ’kinging’.
Not only does everyone look and sound the part, but the set designers and effects people have done great work to recreate both Logue’s humble rooms and grand royal palaces. And it’s all filmed with a sensitive eye by Hooper, dishing out the tale in measured scenes and making us feel every inch of Albert’s progress, without laying it on with a trowel (he could have used flashbacks to show us B-B-Bertie’s childhood, but thankfully didn’t). What’s more, David Seidler’s script (the genesis of which sounds fascinating in itself) delivers a surprising number of laughs, especially in the explosive (but selective) use of expletives
The story of Bertie and Lionel’s growing friendship is polished, involving, and manages to hype up the importance of one speech without being trite. It isn’t, however, particularly original. Though it concerns itself with kingship rather than sports, the overcoming-the-odds tale in The King’s Speech is every bit as formulaic as Rocky, Dodgeball or The Karate Kid, including misgivings between master and pupil and a couple of obligatory setbacks: firstly, there’s a beautifully-shot but credibility-stretching exchange where Albert puts the commoner in his place – though this does result in a marvellous scene where Logue’s unsuspecting wife Myrtle (Jennifer Ehle, famously Firth’s former fancier) discovers Their Royal Highnesses in her front room; secondly, there’s a last-minute hitch when resentful authority, embodied in Derek Jacobi’s Archbishop of Canterbury, digs for dirt on Logue and discovers he’s not qualified to do the job he nevertheless does so brilliantly (this turn-up, the closest the film comes to having a ’twist’, is overcome so quickly that it barely registers). It should be said, though, that these are comparatively piffling complaints given the quality and, more importantly, warmth of the whole.
The only other niggles you might have about The King’s Speech is that it’s not the fastest-moving beast in the world, and the expectant British populace are shown in just a handful of dismissive or anxious faces. Of course, if British history really turns you off, you’re not going to enjoy the film a great deal; but I only had a vague idea of – and interest in – the events surrounding Edward’s abdication and I still found the story fascinating. In the end, though, it’s Bertie’s, and Colin Firth’s, film. The King’s Speech is handsome, handsomely told and immaculately acted, is funny and affecting, and best of all can’t help but make you leave the cinema with a smile on your face.