Review: The King’s Speech - The Objective Standard

The King's Speech, directed by Tom Hooper. Written by David Seidler. Starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter. Released by The Weinstein Company (2010). MPAA Rating: R (for language).


It is 1939 and England is in crisis—war looms, the government is in chaos, the people are in despair. All eyes turn to the country’s reluctant, recently crowned monarch, George VI, to offer stirring words that will brace them for the coming storm. But there’s the rub. The king suffers from a paralyzing stammer, and there are grave doubts that he will be able to deliver the speech that will unite his nation.

Tom Hooper’s Academy-Award winning The King’s Speech is much more than a simple, inspiring wartime tale of a historical figure overcoming a physical and psychological ailment. The story of how Albert, Duke of York, later King George VI, overcame his stammer to give a series of rousing wartime speeches that united and inspired his nation is indeed the framework of the film. But at its heart, the film is the story of the power of the human mind and how hard work and perseverance—not miracles and wishes—are the bulwarks of the human spirit.

The film opens in 1925. Albert (played by Colin Firth) must deliver the closing speech of the Empire Exhibition. The king’s second son is terrified. He is led to the podium where his speech will not only be heard by the assembled crowd but is being simultaneously broadcast across the Empire. The time comes, and in what can only be described as sheer agony, Albert chokes out the first few words. He is next seen several months later at a session with a so-called “speech therapist” who insists that smoking will “relax the throat” and that stuffing one’s mouth full of marbles is the “classic” cure for stuttering. Both remedies, unsurprisingly, fail.

Albert, with the help of his wife, Elizabeth (played by Helena Bonham Carter), eventually lands himself in the offices of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian speech therapist, who promises that he can help Albert (whom he insists on calling “Bertie” to the prince’s continuing disdain) overcome his stammer and speak clearly.

The eccentric speech therapist delivers. Through hard work, setbacks, and triumphs, Logue, with sometimes unusual therapeutic techniques and a wry bit of psychoanalysis, treats the prince and helps him rediscover the confidence and self-esteem that had been robbed from him during his bleak childhood. The efforts culminate in the pivotal speech that Albert, as king, must give. Success is the only option—and the psychological tightrope the king must cross during this moment is more compelling than any explosive action sequence one might imagine.

The King’s Speech is that rare cinematic gem that is filmic in the best sense of the word. Probably the most cinematic of the scenes comes early in the film. Albert has gone to Logue for a consultation, and the men quarrel. Stalking off, Albert takes a souvenir of his visit: a record of his voice reading Hamlet, recorded while loud music played so that neither Albert nor the viewer could hear his words while he was reciting them. Several weeks after the quarrel, Albert digs out the record, puts it on his turntable, and hears what he and we earlier did not: the prince reading without a stammer. It is a powerful scene, made more so as the camera pans from the dumbstruck prince to his speechless princess, who has walked into the room unbeknownst to her husband. The scene then cuts to Albert and Elizabeth back in Logue’s examining room. This short sequence’s natural, efficient construction, exemplifies the film’s overall narrative economy and emotional power.

The psychological conflict Albert faces is illustrated in this visceral way throughout the film—owing in large part to Firth’s effective and affecting performance. Although the stammer is our ongoing reminder of Albert’s psychological impairment, Firth’s Oscar-winning turn as Albert transcends Hollywood’s norm. Firth’s is not a cliché or a stunt performance, but a nuanced portrayal of a man so completely broken inside that it seems almost impossible for him to be put back together. How he does that with wit, will, anger, and courage are what make the picture work. Through Firth’s performance we see Albert’s flashes of confidence throughout the film and watch as they are dashed by, among others, his strong-willed father, George V (Michael Gambon), and his able, albeit lovesick and playboyish, brother, David (later King Edward VIII, played by Guy Pearce). These moments of confidence and despair are shown rather than spoken of; Firth illustrates them with a squaring of the shoulders, a slight saunter in his walk, or a wry smile on the one hand; and a rounding of the shoulders, a look of quiet defeat, or a slackness of his jaw on the other.

Rush’s Logue is equally complex. He is lighthearted but exudes the specific lightness that comes from utter confidence. Logue takes his disappointments as a fact of life, never retreating, never despairing, never giving up. In fact, David Seidler’s script essentially uses Logue as a foil for Albert. The Australian commoner has the heroic spirit that the highly decorated, rich, and connected naval officer Albert lacks.

Logue simply gives Albert the tools to find his own voice and with it his self-esteem, but it is the prince who earns them by doing the requisite work—physical exercises, endless repetitions of nonsensical tongue twisters, and a host of other techniques that will allow him, with confidence, to make the speeches he is called upon to deliver. Seidler’s script does not deliver miracles. Albert overcomes his speech impediment, but does not conquer it. He must use every ounce of his spirit to tame his speech defect, knowing, at heart, that it will not go away. This is what makes The King’s Speech somewhat unique. Albert is not a victim: He wants to overcome his handicap and he will do whatever it takes to lessen it.

In the end, Albert as King George VI becomes the hero of his own story and of his people: a man who tames a crippling physical malady to become a leader and an inspiration.

While costume drama fans will love the period detail, British royal enthusiasts and history buffs will find much to criticize in The King’s Speech. It is important to remember, however, that the film is a stylized piece of historical fiction: Though based on fact, the film takes certain liberties with historical data. For instance, as the film indicates, Logue did work with Albert until the monarch’s death in 1952, and their relationship was extremely close. However, Logue was originally hired by Albert to help him prepare for a tour of Australia in 1926. According to Sarah Bradford in her 1989 biography The Reluctant King: The Life & Reign of George VI 1895–1952, the tour was a smashing success, and the prince acquitted himself well—even insisting on delivering an extemporaneous speech at one point. The prince, writing home about the trip, noted that his self-confidence had increased since working with Logue, crediting it (and the support of his wife) for the trip’s success. This increased level of self-confidence comes much later in the unfolding events of the film.

History buffs might also complain that Seidler’s script gives short shrift to Edward VIII’s Nazi leanings (there’s only a passing reference to his lover Wallis Simpson’s connections to the German foreign office), gives little airing of how appeasement (which the historical George VI supported) hastened the war, and avoids the intricacies of parliamentary politics of the 1930s. Though important for a History Channel documentary, such details have no place here.

The film is not a work of history, but a work of historical fiction, and anyone who would want to quibble with a date or a historical event should keep this in mind. The film presents a stylized account of the historical record, which reduces the events to their essence—in this case, to the importance of the relationship between Albert and Logue. Although this may result in playing fast and loose with some facts, the story’s truth remains. In fact, it is because the film jettisons certain facts as nonessential and focuses on the story of the two men that the picture achieves its universal quality, strengthening its theme of the reclamation of one’s self.

Conversely, in keeping with the need to select only what strengthens the film’s theme, director Hooper emphasizes a few historical points and themes that add depth (and even a bit of topicality) to the film. For instance, the invention of the radio is the biggest reason that the filmic Albert’s inability to speak properly is such a problem. Accordingly, Hooper spends some time showing how the radio changed the way the royals were perceived, much as the Internet and the twenty-four-hour news cycle have changed the public scrutiny of the current generation of British royalty.

Class is another issue that is relevant to the film, and thus explored at some length. (This is not uncommon for a British film: Class, even today, is a hot-button topic, and the way it is addressed in the film is quite complex.) Logue both disdains and respects the class system—a conflicted attitude we see in his treatment of Albert. The prince initially uses hierarchy as a shield but is hobbled by it. The breakdown of class, even for a moment in the consulting room and Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace, is when the key breakthroughs and successes occur. When both men retreat to their class distinctions, setbacks follow.

Some in the audience may be troubled by a key subplot. In becoming king—which he could have opted not to do—Albert gave up his loving family dynamic, what little privacy he had, his successful naval career (the historic Albert was a highly decorated World War I hero), and even his name. In some ways, Edward VIII is a more recognizable and sympathetic character for a 21st-century audience (especially given that Prince Charles made essentially the same choice as his great-uncle). Edward VIII gives up everything for the woman he loves, his greatest value; Albert, in one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the film, tells his wife, “I never wanted to be king, I’m a naval officer!” In an equally emotional moment, the newly installed king bends to hug his daughters (the future Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret) only to receive polite curtsies in return. In Firth’s devastated facial expression, we see instantly that the king knows what he has given up by becoming king. Such scenes may be painful to watch, but regardless of whether we agree with Albert’s choice, it is the choice he made—and certainly one fact that could not have been jettisoned from the film. This subtext is important in understanding the pressures bearing down on Albert (other scenes show him meeting with parliamentary leaders about the crisis his brother has caused for the monarchy), even more so in grasping the film’s overarching theme: a man’s heroic transformation through perseverance in the face of great odds.

Perhaps the only weakness in the film is Derek Jacobi as the archbishop of Canterbury—who himself played a reluctant, stuttering monarch as Claudius Augustus in the classic miniseries I, Claudius. The archbishop is the closest thing to an antagonist in the picture and is not much of a villain. Jacobi’s performance is a little hammy and stilted, but his scenes are mercifully few and do not significantly thwart the overall plot and theme.

The King’s Speech delivers in every way—cinematically, with its strongly drawn plot and characters, and thematically, with its moving message. It is a must for anyone who relishes a story about the triumph of a man pitted against himself.

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