The King’s Speech

Last night, we went to watch The King’s Speech in the local cinema. The house was full, even for the ten-o’clock showing. I have liked Colin Firth since his charming turn as Darcy in Andrew Davies’s 1995 BBC adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.1 And while he excels as the grief-stricken college professor in last year’s A Single Man, his performance as the stammering King George VI (known in his family as “Bertie”) overcoming his speech impediment with the support of an Australian therapist Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush) is even more impressive.
From the first moments of The King’s Speech, I was both engaged with the story and deeply sympathetic to Bertie’s plight as a stammerer forced to do public speaking. The opening scene, for example, when he is required to give a radio address in front of a packed Wembley Stadium audience for the closing of the 1925 Empire Exhibition, is tense and heartbreaking. “Let the microphone do the work” is easier said than done. Tom Hooper’s direction is particularly strong at capturing the reaction of the audience whose disappointment and embarrassment makes this speech almost painful to watch.

Throughout the film, we get to see more of Bertie’s stammering, although he seems more at ease talking to his wife and daughters than he does speaking in an official capacity. Of course, his condition slowly improves through his treatment by Lionel, which is equal parts physical therapy and psychoanalysis. Interestingly, in the first therapy session, Bertie (who is still “Duke of York”) is able to recite Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy without stammering, and this recitation is recorded while he is listening to loud music and cannot hear himself (a technique called ‘masking’). The script-writer makes use of this moment to give new meaning to the great question and foreshadow what will happen in the film: in this case, the answer ‘To be’ is perhaps more like ‘To be King’.
The relationship between Bertie and Lionel is complicated by class, personality and nationality, especially since the Australian Lionel insists on equality and familiarity with the eventual King. The script exploits these themes nicely and gets a lot of humour and empathy out of the differences in the men’s social status. Despite his position, Bertie is portrayed as profoundly self-conscious and lacking in confidence. However, he is also very funny and oftentimes makes jokes about his condition. For me, one of the funniest scenes is when Bertie is asked by Lionel to swear to express his frustration. At first, Bertie, so used to social propriety, is only willing to express a handful of relatively innocuous profanities, but eventually lets go with an eloquent barrage of fucks and shits, after he is challenged by Lionel to be less of a schoolboy. Bertie finishes his tirade by rhyming ‘shits’ with ‘tits’, a moment that got an uproarious laugh from the audience.
The rest of the film does a good job of portraying Bertie’s battle to overcome his stammer, especially in relation to his difficult father (played by Michael Gambon) and brother (played by Guy Pearce), and the fraught politics of his brother’s abdication and the prospects of war. The climax of the film centres on Bertie’s radio speech in which he tries to inspire the nation to be united against the threat of Nazi Germany, a goal which he reaches with the help of Lionel conducting throughout the address.2 (While previously Logue addresses the King as Bertie, after this broadcast, he finally calls him “Your Majesty”.) The speech is intercut with shots of people from different walks of life, listening attentively to their King, in their living rooms, in the pubs and factories, in the open fields, outside Buckingham Palace, etc. The scene is quite moving, which is of course the point. Republicans might see this as Royalist propaganda, although for me it is as much about overcoming one’s challenges as it is a triumphal representation of the Royal family. Surely, using this inspirational message of individual achievement to hide the Royalist message means that this is very good propaganda indeed. But nevermind when it is this enjoyable.
Every one brings their A game to the film and the direction, cinematography, script and art direction are all top-notch. Likewise, the performances are all excellent. Carter is sympathetic and noble as the Queen, which is particularly effective when played alongside Firth and it is easy to believe them as a loving couple. Guy Pearce is terrifically (when is Pearce not terrific?) immature, arrogant and cruel as George’s brother, David (King Edward VIII). One heart-breaking scene stands out in which David mercilessly mocks Bertie’s stammer to his face: “B-B-B-Bertie”. That David is oblivious to his own failures and irresponsibilities adds to the power of the scene. Gambon as George V only appears twice, but his presence is strongly felt in both, as one would expect.

Also read this moving article about the man.

1Firth reunites with his Pride and Prejudice co-star Jennifer Ehle (Elizabeth Bennet) in The King’s Speech; Ehle plays Logue’s wife.
2Firth is extremely good in this speech. You can compare his with the real King VI’s here. You can also read extracts from Logue’s diary and his correspondence with the King and Queen.

5 thoughts on “The King’s Speech

  1. What a concise and beautifully written review.

    On the one hand the review is so appreciative and insightful that one wonders if the film can live up to it.

    On the other hand, the glowing review must surely have been earned by being a powerful movie, so we would be doing ourselves a disservice by missing this movie.

    I'm inclined to lean toward the second view, but will withhold final judgement until I see the film.

    Thanks for the heads up about “The King's Speech”


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