Once upon a time, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother was spry and witty. This may be the most splendid detail offered up by The King’s Speech, though it is, to be sure, a detail offered as rather an afterthought. But if the film’s focus is plainly the long-term relationship that her husband, King George VI (Colin Firth) forges with his speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), Princess Elizabeth, embodied evocatively by Helena Bonham Carter, is its singular delight.
It is her look that first frames the king’s speech. Prince Albert—Bertie, as his wife calls him—initially appears as he’s speaking before a massive crowd at Wembley Stadium in 1925, his performance quickly devolving into the stammering fitfulness for which he is then well known. Elizabeth anticipates what’s coming, and as he sputters and halts and starts again, the camera watches her wide, pale face, patient, knowing, utterly compassionate.
Bertie’s embarrassment is profound, of course, and his own patience is worn down. A introductory second scene, laying out his personal as opposed to public humiliation, shows Bertie dutifully filling his mouth with marbles, as a doctor proposes this will provide distraction en route to improvement. Again, Elizabeth observes, and again, her reaction reflects and also explains the dilemma.
He’s patrician and revered, but he’s also public property, and repeatedly feels ridiculous. This is the dilemma of the royals, proposes this genteel film, having to incarnate so much tradition and privilege while also wielding (relatively) little power in a modern world. Bertie’s is an existence defined by wealth and advantage, but also by crushing anxiety, courtesy of his abusive father, King George V (Michael Gambon). No matter the number of marbles in his mouth, the son will not meet his dad’s expectations, ever.
Elizabeth has a sense of this, though the etiquette of the era disallows her to voice her ideas too explicitly, and certainly not publicly. She promises Bertie he needn’t endure “more” such preposterous therapeutics, but still, she knows his suffering is all but over. And so she does what a wife in such a place must do, secretly visiting Logue to solicit his services. When the unconventional Logue begins to spell out his rules and disdain to her as a reluctant patient’s wife, she sets him straight. “I don’t have a hubby and we don’t play games” she sniffs, to start. When her tone suggests to Logue that he might be perceived as “the enemy,” she smiles: “You will be if you remain unobliging.”
And with that, the boys’ engagement is in motion, and Elizabeth is moved to an intermittent background. While Logue is an outsider (he’s Australian, a stage actor, and an unorthodox family man), he’s hardly going to bring Bertie off his institutional rails. The men both see their work as important—and as work—which marks their primary difference from both their wives (Mrs. Logue is coolly played by Jennifer Ehle). If it’s yet another sage of privileged people learning to appreciate their greatness, The King’s Speech is also a film about performance as a way of life.
Bertie and Logue do share a wondrous, tumultuous friendship, and the film grants Firth and Rush numerous occasions to be brilliant together, whether in montagey bits of office visits, working on “mechanics,” or in earnest conversations in which the prince reveals his “psychology,” namely, his father’s stunning cruelties. Bertie’s particular circumstances include his mostly awful and arrogant brother Edward (Guy Pearce), whose refusal to “give up” the American Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) will cost him the throne in 1936, and catapult Bertie into the very position he fears most.
This and other historical points tend to punctuate the king’s personal story, his efforts to overcome his disorder and resolve his troubled familial history, as The King’s Speech makes various allusions to its title, as the act of speaking, as the extra-significant speech he must make to announce England’s 1939 entry into war against Germany, and as the more metaphorical notion: speech as a means of communicating and so constructing national identity. The film makes clear that this process is expanding and accelerating via radio, which would seem to raise stakes (the power of Hitler’s speech remains an unspoken allusion and menace here).
The king’s speech is an event, process, and performance. It’s also a sign of his capacity for self-expression as well as his sense of responsibility. He shares the first with Elizabeth and Logue, and takes up the second when his bad brother abdicates. Edward’s badness is emphasized by his teasing Bertie and oh yes, his accommodating Nazis.
But the crucial difference between the unserious party boy and the sincere Bertie is indicated in their life partner choices. Mrs. Simpson, “a woman with two husbands living,” exotic and conspicuous, is set in opposition to the redoubtable Elizabeth, a good mom and loyal wife, her strength represented again and again in moments when she watches Bertie—telling penguin stories to their daughters or listening to his own voice, recorded and unstammering by Logue. As the camera pulls away from the prince to settle on his wife, she doesn’t say a word, doesn’t make her presence known to him. But her face reveals that speech is only one way to communicate.