A truly excellent movie always manages to boil its story down to the essentials. It’s the mediocre ones that fumble around trying to figure out what they’re about. I won’t say what the bad ones do, but it often involves some hand lotion and a back issue of National Geographic.
The power of The King’s Speech comes not from the larger than life spectacle of a king being tested by war, but by the human drama of one man finding the character to face the demons that have managed to cripple him his whole adult life, facing them and defeating him through the strength of friendship. It’s a very simple story that just happens to have a regal background.
In 1925, Prince Albert, the Duke of York (Colin Firth), is second in line to the British Crown, behind his brother David, the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), and everyone sort of prefers it that way, even Albert. “Bertie,” as everyone calls him, is afflicted with a stammer that renders him utterly terrified of public speaking, which is a rather inconvenient condition for a member of the Royal Family, who are expected to speak in public from time to time.
Bertie seeks out professional help for his speech impediment, but speech therapy is in its infancy at the time and the treatments are of such little use that the prince gives up. His wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), eventually seeks out one last prospect, an unconventional therapist and part-time actor, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) in a last ditch effort to find a solution to her husband’s problems.
The initial efforts are tentative and awkward, especially with Lionel’s insistence on being treated as an equal during therapy and addressing the Prince as “Bertie,” which are two things that Albert has been practically conditioned from birth never to do.
The urgency of Albert’s situation is well-known to anyone familiar with this period in British history. David is hopelessly taken with Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), a married American woman who will soon be twice divorced. When King George V (Michael Gambon), Albert’s father dies and David assumes the Crown as Edward VIII, he still insists on marrying Simpson. The prime minister’s Cabinet threatens to resign over the prospect of an American divorcee as the queen consort. Faced with a near revolt in his own government, Edward abdicates, leaving the throne to Albert, who takes on the name of George VI (Albert is a little too “Germanic” for those pre-World War II years).
Thrust into the role of King on the eve of war, King George realizes that Lionel’s role in his life is all that more important.
In the central role of the Prince and King, Colin Firth manages to find a bottomless well of humanity in the man who struggles to remain dignified when his own voice betrays him. Bertie is a loving father and husband, and a concerned brother who acutely realizes the danger present in David’s self-absorbed pursuit. Stacked up against Firth, Geoffrey Rush is every bit his equal, displaying a commoner’s compassion for a man who doesn’t always treat him with the respect he deserves. The therapist realizes that in order to treat the man’s stammer, he has to understand the man. From that understanding, respect is earned and trust is ultimately forged.
The third key role here is Helena Bonham Carter as the woman our generation knew as the “Queen Mum.” If Carter’s performance is even 50% accurate, then it’s easy to understand why she was the most popular member of the Royal Family (sometimes, it seemed, the only popular member). Her combination of tart humor and practicality seems to perfectly complete the film’s image of “Bertie” as the family man and husband. I can’t begrudge Melissa Leo her Best Supporting Actress Oscar, but Carter was no less deserving.
I’m somewhat relieved that this was a wholly British production. If the Yanks had been involved, we would have felt the need to “Hollywood-ize” the story, casting Robin Williams as an American Logue and turning him into a brash rebel who blows air up the skirts of the stuffy royals and single-handedly wins World War II, sort of a Masterpiece Theater version of The Dead Poets Society.
Writer David Seidler and director Tom Hooper have such a masterful control of tone and narrative that they manage to wring every possible ounce of drama from a scene as simple (and stationary) as a man giving a speech over the radio. It’s not often that you get to see a film that puts not a foot wrong.