The King’s Speech tells the true story of King George VI. How he came to power and how he found the power to overcome his fears – mostly his fear of public speaking. Or just speaking.
Directed by Brit Tom Hooper, whose most notable credit until now was directing all seven installments of HBO’s fine mini-series John Adams, and working from an airtight and well-structured script from David Seidler, The King’s Speech works on every level imaginable.
Colin Firth, who gave one of my favorite performances of last year in the hypnotic A Single Man, plays the stammering monarch with impeccable attention to detail. We are truly witnessing an actor in Firth, 50, who has so completely come into his own that it is exhilarating waiting to see what he will sink his considerable chops into next.
We first see him in 1925 as ‘Albert, Duke of York’ preparing in a corridor to step in front of a microphone and deliver an inaugural address to a packed Wembley Stadium. We immediately see that this is not just your garden variety stutter. This guy cannot speak in front of people and it ain’t pretty to behold. “Let the mic do the work,” his adviser gently coaches him as he slowly plants himself in front of his subjects. Even his wife, ‘Elizabeth,’ wonderfully played by the relentlessly reliable Helena Bonham Carter, winces as he stammers out one painful word at a time with pauses so preggers you could drive a double-decker through them.
Next we see ‘The Duke’ in 1934, working with a speech therapist who has him hacking on cigarettes while instructing him that “…smoking calms the nerves and gives you confidence.” Then he’s told to stuff seven marbles into his mouth and “enunciate!” These crackpot techniques don’t gain much traction with his Royal stutterer and he pleads to his wife “Promise me, no more.”
The story then begins to take its parental form as we glimpse ‘The Duke’ at home with his wife and two lovely daughters who adore their dear daddy and implore him to tell them a story. He opts instead to waddle around like a penguin, wanting so badly to entertain his children without the embarrassment that would come from his stammering through a fairy tale. And this theme of public humiliation and rejection sustains the entire arc of the story as we next meet the man who will become not only the eventual King of England’s speech therapist, but closest friend.
Geoffrey Rush stuck his flag in the sand in 1996 playing the mentally ill pianist ‘David Helfgott’ in the bio-pic, Shine, a role that justifiably won him a Best Actor Oscar. He has been consistently compelling and watchable ever since – but never as good as he is here.
Rush plays ‘Lionel Logue,’ the speech therapist who earns, through great pains and persistence, the trust and friendship of the King. When he learns of the prior therapist’s theory on cigarette smoking he maligns the profession “They’re all idiots.” To which ‘The Duke of York’ responds, “They’ve all been Knighted.” Setting up ‘Lionel’ for this: “Then that makes it official.” So good. And there are many hearty laughs along the way, including some juicy digs at actors which always makes me snort.
One of the most significant scenes in the film takes place in the first act as we see ‘Lionel’ up on a stage, auditioning for the role of ‘Richard III’ for a local theatre troupe. His acting is not good, unfortunately, and the director who interrupts him is far from delicate in his rejection style. It’s a heartbreaking scene, made complete by Rush’s layered anguish and humiliation over being dismissed so cavalierly. It’s a moment earned in a masterful film by a wonderful actor and it cements and consequently catapults all that we are in store for on this two-man journey of redemption, salvation, acceptance – approval.
The political significance of the picture also hits just the right notes. The urgency that the Royals get their act together so that Parliament can take the necessary strides to stand up to Hitler.
The look and feel and ambience of The King’s Speech are flawless and beyond authentic.
But what I took away most from this terrific film was the driving thirst in all of us to overcome our fears. Some are bigger than others. I had an ear infection as a child and therefore could not put my head under water without fear until I was 11 years old. It remained a slight phobia well into my adult life. So my wife and I went scuba diving on our honeymoon in Tahiti. I cannot tell you the liberation I felt conquering that fear.
At one point in The King’s Speech ‘Lionel’ challenges his student, the King of England, whom he calls ‘Bertie,’ an intimate childhood name that the therapist was initially forbidden to utter.
“You needn’t be afraid of the things you were afraid of when you were five.”
The human condition is quite a labyrinth, I thought to myself, accessing my inner five-year-old and realizing in the process I’d unleashed a stream of tears down my cheeks, hoping the folks next to and around me wouldn’t notice I was melting. But we’re all in this together. Aren’t we?