The King’s Speech is, of course, about Prince Albert of the house of Windsor, the family that made up the heads of the English monarchy for the whole of the 20th century. The film opens during a time when Albert is just starting to come to the realization that he may become king; he is only the second in succession, but there are complications with his brother, Prince Edward, and Albert may have to fill the breach.
Bertie, as he’s called by his family, is a man overwhelmed by familial and civic obligations; these pressures have left him friendless, and saddled with a wounded psyche. Indeed, that his familial and his civic duties are one and the same is no small part of his unhappy condition. Bertie’s personality is withdrawn and uncharismatic. He has none of the kingly dash of his brother, and what’s more Bertie has a horrible speech impediment that prevents him from ever sounding the part of a leader to his subjects, or his fellow royals. If Bertie’s life was a Tweet, it would need the hashtag, “#royalproblems.” Yet the film manages to sell these issues as universal, which is no small feat.
Being a poor public speaker is catastrophic for Bertie’s royal image, as his main function in life is to stand in front of people and project pomp and circumstance. In times past, he could have just stood and waved, but the new media of radio requires that the king’s voice be heard. His stammering is shown to be a result of severe insecurity about his place under a father who cannot abide weakness.
King George V, played by Michael Gambon, is more concerned with the image of a son than the actuality of one. Meanwhile, Prince Edward, played by Guy Pearce, is adrift in his own struggles to define himself apart from his own royal identity (and it turns out that some of this self-definition requires him to make hell for his family.) Bertie only wishes he could remain the second son, the one in the background, and resign himself to all the insecurities that seem inextricably attached to this position.
The soon-to-be-king needs a professional speech therapist to cure his stammer and make him sound the part of his new office. Over the course of the film, a man named Lionel Logue cures Bertie by teaching him, essentially, to loosen up. Lionel’s therapy consists of disturbing the rigidly enforced equilibrium that had emotionally sustained his patient through the years of being pressured to act royal. No one ever taught Bertie that to be a king, one has to be a human being first. Lionel and Bertie become friends, which helps Bertie let out his feelings, and with them come the words that had been bottled up for so long. By the end, Bertie can speak the words required to fulfill his destiny and meet his father’s expectations, though of course he does so in a markedly different way than had been taught him in the old school.
While the film suggests a rich palette of psychological trauma on the part of its main character, it focuses on one manifestation: his stammer. This is a convenient character device that is represented as the culmination of all conflict. The film’s first scene is a protracted sequence in which we watch Bertie struggle to make a speech at the British Empire Exhibition. We immediately understand him not as Charles Foster Kane, who built an empire and mortared himself within its walls, but an ordinary man who wished to do ordinary things but tragically had wealth and power foisted upon him.
In another scene, we see him play with a model plane with a child’s fascination; he had always wanted to play with models, he explains, but had never been allowed. We learn that, as readily as one can take wealth for granted, one can also take for granted the pleasures of everyday human interaction.
Colin Firth’s performance is excellent. He certainly deserved the Oscar he was awarded for this role, if only for the scene in which he first meets Geoffery Rush’s Lionel, where he tries to play off his awkwardness by making jokes but ends by lashing out in an embarrassing display of anger. Bertie’s speech impediment is opened up to a whole new audience through this telling, a less buttoned down world, and Firth expertly conveys a sense of flailing confusion at this fact. Bertie’s feeling of being trapped in a code that has time and time again failed him is gut-wrenchingly clear, perhaps never more than when he is trying to be funny. His are jokes that would break your heart.
Geoffrey Rush does well playing the royal voice coach, but there is perhaps no greater aspect of his performance than the sheer sight of his face. He has such a distinctive, unusual face. The humanity of his less than beautiful visage is the perfect foil to Firth’s own face, which is unmoving, chiseled. Lionel’s function is to imbalance his patient. He does everything wrong that Bertie had been so long taught was right, even to the point of misrepresenting himself and his own credentials as a doctor. Where Bertie is bestowed with titles he didn’t earn, Lionel earns everything but has no titles. It’s easy to see who learns from whom.
The film’s supporting players are vital to filling in the main character’s emotional landscape. Prince Edward is portrayed by Guy Pearce as a wheedling, simpering ass, who would rather burn a cathedral than displease his monstrous lover, the American socialite, Wallis Simpson. As King George V, Michael Gambon is by turns menacing and sympathetic; we see him first as an overbearing monarch-father, then as a doddering old man in the grip of dementia. Gambon’s transformation from one state into the next is presented as if one was a natural progression of the other, as if this is the fate of all royals. Power not only corrupts, it also deadens the mind.
One of the film’s great acting moments comes from Firth, when Bertie looks at his unseated father for the first time; we understand from what generosity of spirit those hard-won jokes come. Helena Bonham Carter portrays Bertie’s sympathetic wife, someone for whom his so-called “impediment” has become completely normal; she will, of course, love her husband—whether he stammers or not.
Tom Hooper’s direction is good, if a little bit showy. Somehow the camera tricks he employs seem like they would work better on the large screen than the small one on which I viewed this DVD version, the fisheye effect he uses in the first sequence, for instance. Subtlety and detail comes across better on small screens, while camera tricks like the ones Hooper often employs are more effective when given a large screen to stretch out. A great defect happens during the film’s only montage, where we see the many different therapies Lionel uses to loosen Bertie’s tongue. This is a point where the narrative should have slowed down and allowed us to really watch the tumblers come unclicked.
It’s impossible to watch a film like the The King’s Speech and not take a position on the subject of royalty itself. This is a good film, because it seems to know this and addresses a diversity of outlooks on the subject. There are scenes that speak to those who admire royalty—such as the film’s final moments, where the rehabilitated image of the young king upbraids his subjects in a time of uncertainty. There are scenes for the anti-royalists, who would blanch at the idea of an infrastructure of power handed down through hereditary bonds—as during the several moments where the royals seem to be “handled” by their servants. One asks here, “Exactly who is ruling whom, and why?”
But most of the film expresses a middle ground, the sentiment that while royalty itself may be outdated, those caught within its lingering historical moment are to be pitied rather than scorned. This is a story about royalty that is meant to humanize royals, and therefore somewhat undermines their quintessence; that King George VI historically saw a drastically diminished monarchy during his reign is directly connected to his humanization within this film.
What keeps The King’s Speech from being a great film is that it doesn’t seem to know what it most wants. On one hand, it wants to show us Bertie, an emotionally traumatized human being. The ground under his feet is shifting, such that the ancient ways in which he has been trained are becoming progressively irrelevant. Well, in that case, then why does it matter whether he sounds like a king? Maybe he should just call the whole thing off, like his brother did? If only he could. On the other hand, the film seems to portray the trappings of an obsolete monarchy as a matter of life and death. The confusion between these two conflicting ideas muddies the film’s aesthetic effect.
The Kings Speech succeeds in showing us Bertie, but not so much in showing us George. “Bertie” is a man who finds it hard to speak to people, like many of us do; his lot in life is to speak in front of crowds. It’s as if he was born blind and forced to become the world’s foremost acrobat, and this is a very sympathetic problem. However, “George” is a king who needs to perform only one duty—give a speech—but the importance of that duty is never really made clear.
The DVD’s special features ae good, with a director and cast commentary, and a Q&A session with some of the cast. But never have extras seemed more superfluous. Much more likely to hold interest for fans of this film are the audio recordings of real speeches given by King George VI, which show how very dedicated Firth is in mimicking his subject’s vocal mannerisms.
Films about royalty should have three things about them: pageantry, pathos, and absurdity. The King’s Speech nails the first two and makes a valiant effort at the third but doesn’t quite hit the mark. In terms of quality it falls somewhere between The Madness of King George and A Man For All Seasons. Robert Shaw’s performance of King Henry VIII in the latter is, to my mind, the best performance of a royal character ever. Shaw is unmistakably magnetic and utterly menacing all at once, just like the office he inhabits.