By Jeff Kazmierski, Copy Editor
Every so often a movie comes along that both exceeds expectations and is impossible to summarize in a pithy review column headline. “The King’s Speech” is one of those movies.
Set in the decade between the World Wars, the film tells the story of His Royal Highness Albert, the Duke of York, who later became King George VI, on the eve of World War II following the inauspicious abdication of his brother, King Edward VIII. More specifically, it tells the story of the relationship between the introverted, stammering young royal (played by Colin Firth) and his brash, irreverent Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush.)
The movie opens with Firth as the Duke of York making his first public appearance, facing the microphone and the crowd as though attending his own funeral. His stammer makes it all but impossible for him to speak in public and he miserably fails to get through even the first line of the speech while the crowd waits in embarrassed silence.
Albert’s (known throughout the movie as Bertie) wife Elizabeth (played by Helena Bonham Carter) seeks the assistance of a therapist, and this is where Lionel Logue comes in. He has no actual credentials, no doctorate and no formal training, and though his methods are considered unorthodox for the time, they work. In one early exchange between the Duke and his new therapist, Logue makes a bet of one shilling that Bertie will be able to read a page of Shakespeare with perfect diction. Bertie fails at his first attempt, but Logue convinces him to try again. This time, however, he has him listen to Mozart over headphones while his voice is being recorded on a phonograph.
Unable to hear himself talking, he storms out of the office, but not before Logue gives him the recording of his voice. Later, when he finally listens to the recording and hears himself speaking, he changes his mind about the therapy and returns to Logue’s treatment.
Logue’s methods, as I said earlier, seem unconventional, but parents of children who have gone through modern speech therapy will recognize many of them instantly. Using a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, physical training and operant conditioning, Logue challenges, drives and occasionally goads his royal patient. Part of Bertie’s problem, it is apparent, is that the royal lifestyle is one of stiff formality from which he must break in order to set free his voice. We are treated to scenes of his royal highness rolling about on the floor, doing face-wagging exercises and deep breathing exercises with his wife sitting on his chest.
Logue is also unapologetically irreverent at times. During a private rehearsal for Bertie’s coronation ceremony, Logue deliberately sits in Saint Edward’s chair in Westminster Abbey – worse, he slouches in it – provoking the Duke into an angry confrontation: “Listen to you, by what right?” Logue challenges. “Because I have a voice!” the Duke shouts back. “Yes, you have.” Logue replies sincerely. And there lies the premise of the movie – the king deserves to be heard not simply because he’s king, but because he’s human, and he has a voice.
Unconventional methods, perhaps – but they work. They work so well, in fact, that Bertie at times seems completely unaware that his speech and elocution have improved. As the film progresses, we see the relationship between the two men grow and develop from therapist and patient to king and trusted advisor. In one session, Bertie reveals details of his childhood. He was left-handed, for which he was punished harshly and forced to use his right hand. His nanny abused him as a baby and his legs were placed in painful metal braces to correct his knock-knees. With all that, it’s no wonder he stammers. It certainly doesn’t help that his brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), teased him mercilessly about it.
Firth’s performance as George VI is simply brilliant. He manages to walk the fine line between desperation and determination, between intolerable suffering and steely resolve, with incredible humility and dignity.
The movie is also a study in contrasts. At its heart it’s about a man who comes into incredible power, but lacks the ability to use it. Being a king in the age of radio means, as Michael Gambon’s George V says, being able to “invade people’s homes” using the new medium. A king who can’t communicate is hardly a king at all.
In a scene dramatically illustrating the juxtaposition of power and communication, Bertie (newly crowned as George VI) watches a newsreel of Adolph Hitler working up the crowd at Nuremberg. His daughter asks him what Hitler is saying, and he replies “I don’t know, but he’s saying it awfully well.” The scene shows both the power and danger of effective public speaking.
“The King’s Speech” is quintessentially a British film. All of the major players in it are British, as befits a movie about the royal family. American movie fans may experience a bit of cognitive dissonance as they recognize more than a few familiar faces. The part of Winston Churchill, for example, is played by Timothy Spall, who you may remember as Peter Pettigrew from the Harry Potter series, and Helena Bonham Carter is equally stunning as Queen Elizabeth as she was as Bellatrix LeStrange. Fans of Doctor Who will immediately recognize Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury – he played The Master in two episodes of the third series in 2007.
But that aside, the film is absolutely fantastic. In the climactic scene from which the movie derives its title, George VI must deliver a radio address to his Empire announcing the start of World War II. He practices with Logue beforehand and, as he steps into the microphone chamber, he finds it has been decorated to match Logue’s austere office, with no distractions and only a single window. With Logue at his side directing his elocution like a maestro conducting a symphony, he delivers a nine-minute radio address filled with emotion and sincerity.
“You still stammered on the ‘w’,” Logue says at the close of the address.
“I had to throw in a few so they’d know it was me,” the king replies.
At the end of the day, “The King’s Speech” is a film that defies description. You could call it brilliant, beautiful, heartfelt, humorous or even painful, and it’s all those. But most of all, it’s just a fantastic film that tells a great story.