Because of who they are and what they represent, royalty never seem truly real. Even in today’s tabloid tell-all atmosphere where no scandalous secret is left unexplored, Kings and Queens, Princes and Princesses always appear above authenticity, as genuine as the bewildering birthright ideals that keep them in power in the first place. Sure, we snicker when a Duchess discusses her weight issues, or weep when a particularly beloved crowned icon dies a tragic death, but for the most part, the regal are mere portraits, painted by the broad, baseless strokes of generations of insularity.
Perhaps this is why something like The King’s Speech feels so refreshing. Even though it’s mostly made up of the “truth is stranger than fiction” school of storytelling, it treats the British royal family, specifically the late ’30s reign of George V, Edward VIII, and eventually George VI, as a trip through familiar dysfunction. In this case, hoswever, the personal and the public blend into a stirring look behind the throne. For the dying monarch father (Michael Gambon), the quandary is great. He would prefer to have his more level headed and serious son “Bertie” (Colin Firth) rule the land. Sadly, the jet-setting Duke of Windsor (Guy Pearce) is the next in line, already ruining his reputation by taking up with a divorced American commoner named Wallis Simpson.
Even more concerning is Bertie’s obvious stammer, a childhood impediment that makes even the simplest sentences (and the reading of same) almost impossible. Having tried dozens of doctors, many of whom had hoped that their brush with the crowned heads would lead to an equally stately reputation, his Grace has almost given up trying. But his doting wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) will not be deterred. Seeking out a supposed specialist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), she hopes his unconventional approach can cure her husband’s ills. And with Edward more and more lost in love, and Europe moving closer and closer to war with Hitler, it may be more than a matter of personal pride. Bertie – and his voice – may be called on to guide an entire country.
All of this plays out within a warm and welcoming comic backdrop where future kings drop the F-bomb, future Queen mothers stand firmly by their man, and the entire royal family has more flaws than a typical sitcom brood. But because of the underlying serious subtext, because director Tom Hooper (The Damned United) never once lets the narrative shift over into farce, The King’s Speech becomes something both hilarious and heartfelt, a genial and genuine experience made even more startling by the brilliant acting involved. This is one of those film where everyone is on their “A” game, where the entirety of the experience never outweighs the individual moments, and visa versa.
For his part, Firth commands an Awards Season amount of respect. He has the most difficult role of all. Because of his stammer and the obvious family issues that caused it, he must combine both an internal and external reason for his plight. It’s all in the eyes, in the small creases around his mouth. He’s a man who could be king and yet strives daily to deny such truths. In fact, one of the more fascinating facets of The King’s Speech is the notion and consideration of the question, “What is a normal life?” When Elizabeth describes her courtship, she makes it very clear to mention the loss of freedom that comes with marrying a noble. Similarly, this vocal impairment is not just a private matter. According to all, it borders on a state crisis.
This condemns Bertie/George VI to being both desperate and determined, and Firth finds the right balance time and time again. He comes off as regal and yet isn’t afraid to be open and wholly human. In fact, all the actors portraying the famous figures here are great. Ms. Bonham Carter recalls the very best of the late Queen Mum, while Gambon essays the fine line between father and ruler with ease. Even Pearce, given the unwelcome task of explaining away Edward “fascination” with Wallis Simpson (who is portrayed as a sort of a slag) finds the proper stability. Indeed, all the main players do a decisive job of making us believe in the severity and solemnity of the situations. It’s the circumstances and their reaction to it which provides most of the levity.
Even more persuasive is Rush as the failed actor turned “faith” healer, Logue. While he’s described as unconventional, here’s merely modern. He doesn’t believe in superstitious cures. Instead, he digs for the source, never letting his patient’s place get in the way of his methods. A lot of the humor comes from the confrontations between Logue and Bertie, the cheeky nature of their exchanges belying centuries of class constructs. Indeed, the inherent joy of watching Rush work is that he infuses his teacher with a level of no-bullshit inquiry that the movie definitely needs. We want to know what drives a future (and then sitting) king, what a life lived in such sovereign service is like. The King’s Speech provides such insights – and much, much more.
As entertaining as it is, as well made and proportioned as it is, The King’s Speech can’t help but suffer from some of the same source issues as many it its period piece pathway. Unlike The Queen, which carried a kind of deconstructionist post-modern demeanor to its narrative, we get the same old structures here, moviemaking mannerisms that launched a dozen Merchant Ivory epics. We can feel the implied weight of what’s going on here, how Bertie’s struggles could actually lead to the end of the British empire as we know it. Even during an ironic moment when a newsreel of Hitler catches the royal eye, there is still a stateliness that the rest of The King’s Speech is eager to overcome. When it does, it’s magnificent. When it doesn’t, we still enjoy the voyeuristic nature of the premise.
Yet even within this imagined setting, it’s still hard to get a firm handle on what a true royal really is. Clearly, they are a combination of privilege and problems, unable to control their destiny while seemingly fated and forced to fulfill it. During the Second World War, George VI was a fatherly source of inspiration and hope. He always had the voice. It was an inner strength he had to discover for himself. That’s what made treating and tempering the King’s speech really so important. That’s what makes the movie of the same name a true delight.