by Richard von Busack
The personal crises of constitutional monarchs doesn’t seem the stuff of fascinating drama. There’s a scene in The King’s Speech of a temper flare up between George VI (Colin Firth) and his therapist (Geoffrey Rush). Facing the royal wrath coolly, the latter suggests…”You could put me in the Tower…” Smiling as he says it, knowing full well those days are gone.
The surprise here—and the reason why Firth gives the performance of his life—is that the joke ends. Firth gives us a shame-wracked, deeply affecting portrayal of a man born and bred to be a spokesman, yet who is handicapped with a crippling stammer.
Set in the 1930s, The King’s Speech contrasts a pair of royals. Early on, Firth is the Duke of York, a family man with two daughters and a wife named Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter). The stammering Duke, known to his family as “Bertie,” is the official spare to the heir, next in line to the Prince of Wales. A superlatively cast Guy Pearce embodies this Edward’s upper-class shadiness, and monstrous entitlement. The Prince is the love slave of a twice married American named Simpson; his affair, and his indifference to world troubles (“Hitler will sort them out,” he offers) are pushing events to a constitutional crisis.
A mess. And the man tapped to solve it is Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a down at the heels Australian speech therapist on London’s Hartley Street. The Duke is a prickly, shy patient. It takes much coaxing to get him to practice odd exercises to firm up his larynx…and to expose the Freudian traumas that are tying his tongue. Imagine what it would be like to grow up facing Queen Victoria across the breakfast table. And as the bearded old king George V, Michael Gambon shows the kind of snarling fierceness that would unman any son.
Most of The King’s Speech is an inspired actor’s duel about the conflict between pride and need. Rush’s wit and nimbleness counterpoints this story of majesty. This agreeably homely actor’s gregariousness also shows us the climber in Logue. He likes to flabbergast the King into speaking without thinking, even if it takes pouncing on the monarch’s throne to do it. Logue is as altruistic as a good healer ought to be…but believably, he does look out for himself.
Bonham Carter’s portrayal of a lady we all remember as the doddering Queen Mother is a pleasure, too. It’s a blessedly light role for someone getting typecast as an Expressionist, with a suite of the fanciest 1930s gowns and hats to model. This elder Elizabeth was a blueblood, but by royal lights she was officially a commoner. This might be reflected in the mischief Bonham Carter displays; she knows how to pull rank when it amuses her.
The source book for this film claims that Logue personally saved the monarchy by helping the new King to raise his voice against Hitler. This typical bit of biopic inflation may be why the primarily comedic actor Timothy Spall is cast as Winston Churchill. It’s a spot of comic relief by caricature; a delightful spot of hamming. However, in making him slightly comic, The Kings’ Speech diminishes the speaker who actually rallied the world against Hitler.
Tom Hooper is a perennial tv director whose taste for simple clarity comes at the price of over-explanation and obviousness. Still, the pace is sharp, and the film isn’t overproduced. The King’s Speech is a natural hit: a bromance version of My Fair Lady with the upper and lower classes reversed.
And it’s almost exactly as tragic as it is comic. When we see Firth’s Bertie, figged up in braid and medals, in a green tunic and stiff collar that looks about as comfortable as an Iron Maiden, one’s heart goes out to him.
The wrongness of doing this to a person—of making a king out of some unwilling soul— strikes one harder than the usual Masterpiece Theater assurances that there will always be an England. The sight of Firth’s mute pleading is even some kind of wintry solace in the face of our standard American idiocy. Here we have our weeping Boehners and blithering Bachmans, and the fresh news that Dan Quayle’s son has been elected to Congress. But at least we’re citizens, not subjects.