Film review: The King’s Speech
“The nation believes that when I… I speak, I speak for them,” remarks King George VI emphatically, on the eve of World War II.
The question is: can he?
And, therein lies the anxiety of the newly-coronated King, his Queen, his physician, government and, indeed, the entire nation.
Wisdom of history informs the audience that he could and did — with rousing aplomb. But, The King’s Speech plays out the drama unfolding behind the royal visage, in the lead-up to the historic speech that came to unite the British people, as their country was poised on the threshold of war.
The Duke of York (Colin Firth), affectionately called Bertie within the confines of his royal family, speaks with a stammer — and has, for as long as he can remember.
In the prologue, we witness the Duke’s affliction at the closing ceremony of the 1925 British Empire Exhibition in Wembley Stadium. The excruciating attempt offers a foretaste of his helpless chagrin, his wife’s vicarious anguish as well as (with the dawn of the broadcast media) much of the world’s cringe — in bafflement.
His marvellous wife, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, seeks out an Australian speech therapist in a dreary basement office and persuades her skeptical husband to attend. A proven physician, albeit without formal qualifications, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) approaches his royal patient in his usual off-beat manner. Bertie regards him as undeferential and leaves in a petulant huff — only to return after hearing a recording of his own near-impeccable reading of Hamlet that Logue elicited through an unconventional method.
Meanwhile, Bertie’s father, King George V, becomes palpably anxious about David, his elder son and heir-apparent, who is hopelessly infatuated with an American double divorcee. Exasperated about the impending scandal, he lashes out imperiously at Bertie to be prepared for an alternative plan. Later, watching his father deliver a royal speech over the airwaves with such dignified eloquence, Bertie is filled with trepidation.
Tom Hooper’s superb directorship subtly imbues the film with a profound subtext: Bertie’s affliction is not a physiological defect but a psychological deficiency. We learn about unimaginable practices in the royal chambers and glimpse at subliminal influences of the aroyal on royalty.
Bertie begins to embark on a course of unorthodox treatment from Logue: a series of sessions to un-tense, un-clench and un-inhibit. Almost in the same way that his brother has developed an affair with a commoner, Bertie has unwittingly found an unusual friendship with one.
But, the parallels stop there. Hooper deftly portrays the brothers’ contrasting temperaments: flamboyant and reticent; selfish and duty-bound; confident and insecure. Besides, while David’s relationship with his American lover intensifies with time, Bertie’s friendship with Logue is tempestuous and riddled with class issues.
In 1936, their ailing father dies. Failing to persuade David — now King Edward VIII — to sacrifice his personal life for the interests of the monarchy, Bertie (reluctantly) finds himself crowned King George VI. He suffers with agonising self-doubt in the quiet of the night and the private company of his wife.
So, when he is exhorted by Winston Churchill to speak to his subjects as England stands on the cusp of war, he turns into stone. He summons for Logue but finds his only hope for a King’s speech ostracised by the establishment around him.
Nevertheless, we see Logue’s talent and sincerity cut through the suspicion and vitriol. In the end, he was to be the man installed on the King’s side each time he delivered a speech.
Rush’s performance is moving — precisely because he never pushes to make it so. Never more than in the scene where he slumps himself on the throne, impertinently refusing to get up, even when Bertie lambasts him. “Why should I listen to you?” he asks provocatively. “Because I have a voice!” retorts Bertie sharply, without a stammer. “Yes, you do,” Rush offers — touchingly.
Firth is equally fine. Indeed, it is a challenge to rank him against Rush. His struggle with inadequacy and his dogged determination win the audience’s solidarity. One memorable sequence sees the royal family watching Hitler speaking on a newsreel: “What’s he saying?” his daughter asks. “I don’t know, but he seems to be saying it rather well,” the King answers ponderously.
There are outstanding performances, too, by Michael Gambon as the irascible King George V, Guy Pearce as the cruel and irresponsible David, Derek Jacobi as the schemingly unctuous Archbishop of Canterbury and Timothy Spall as the jowly, cigar-toting Winston Churchill. Most notably, though, is Helena Bonham Carter’s striking performance as Bertie’s supportive wife, Elizabeth, who shifts between a regal poise and an unassuming disposition as seamlessly as a swan gliding from water into land.
All of that, with a classical score that builds the atmosphere imperceptibly, it is little wonder The King’s Speech is already widely touted as an Oscar favourite.