The story of King George VI of Britain, his impromptu ascension to the throne and the speech therapist who helped the unsure monarch become worthy of it.
On the face of it, this movie may seem like it is aimed at fans of the British Royals. It concerns the struggle that King George the VI (father of the current Queen) had in learning to speak in public. From childhood on, he had a debilitating stammer, but until his brother Edward VIII abdicated the throne, he wasn’t going to get the top job and wasn’t expected to do much public speaking. Not exactly an everyday problem for your average cinema-goer. The trick this movie works brilliantly, is to humanise a very privileged man and make the audience feel for his circumstances.
Bertie, as he was known by his family, became the King in December of 1936. A war was imminent and it was necessary for Bertie to learn how to speak properly to the public or as they were then, his subjects. His leadership was hereditary, but his ability to lead and inspire through his oratory was unformed because of his affliction. After he became King, there were many occasions that required his voice to heard.
Although the British Empire was in decline when Bertie ascended the throne, it still took in millions of square miles of territory and its subjects numbered in the millions, too. King George VI didn’t have actual political power, yet he reigned over a considerable portion of the planet. The movie makes the point that a European war was being prosecuted by those who could communicate powerfully like Hitler. So Bertie’s wife (whom we later knew as the Queen Mother) decided it was time for him to try a different cure.
Enter speech therapist, Australian Lionel Logue (Rush). His unconventional methods were frowned upon by other therapists. After a difficult beginning, the King felt Logue could help him and slowly a friendship grew between two very different men.
The King’s Speech is based upon a play written by David Seidler. The young Seidler also had a stammer and he cites George the VI as a hero because of the way he dealt with his own affliction. This was part of the impetus for his writing the play in later life. Director Tom Hooper learnt about the play through his mother who is an Australian living in England. Hooper says he has been on the hunt for an Anglo-Australian property to reflect his own bi-national heritage.
Hooper works predominately in television and has directed well-known British fare like LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE (2001). He was also responsible for directing all seven episodes of the rather fine HBO biopic mini-series JOHN ADAMS (2008) starring Paul Giamatti. His experience dealing with historical drama certainly shows in THE KING’S SPEECH. The detail of the production design, wardrobe and language choices quickly draw the audience into a believable rendering of the 1930s.
The film’s origins as a play become obvious in reflection. Most of the story takes place between the three leads. Colin Firth is excellent as Bertie, he portrays the anger and priggishness and the vulnerability that lies beneath the King’s exterior. Helena Bonham Carter takes a break from playing wild-eyed crazies to portray a rather warm and winning Queen Mother. Geoffrey Rush plays Logue straight down the line. It is his most contained screen performance for some time and he knows exactly what is required for the cocky and egalitarian Australian therapist.
Another Australian actor, Guy Pearce deserves mention for his portrayal of Edward the VIII or David as he was known by the family. Pearce is more handsome than David, but does bear some resemblance to the monarch who abdicated the throne in favour of the love of his life, Wallis Simpson. As usual, when the Edward and Mrs Simpson story is told, one can’t help feeling that the Royals and the British Empire were well served by not having to endure the reign of Edward the VIII for any more than 11 months.
THE KING’S SPEECH is a solid entertainment that delivers uplift in exactly the way one would hope. The cast and director have succeeded in making a good film that adults can enjoy. You will not be dazzled and confronted, but your brain cells will enjoy the pleasure of intelligent drama that doesn’t resolve with a computer-generated battle-droid flying through an exploding orange fireball. God Save The King’s Speech!
THE KING’S SPEECH runs for 118 minutes and opens in Australia on Boxing Day, 2010. I rated it 4/5.