Colin Firth lives in fear of his voice failing him in The King's Speech
In the 1930’s Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) is second-in-line for the throne. But unlike his charismatic brother David (Guy Pearce), he’s a tense man uncomfortable in the spotlight, whose life has been blighted by his stammer. As pressure grows from his father George V (Michael Gambon) to take on a more public role, he and his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) begin the process of consulting doctors for “a cure”. But the answer might lie with a former actor turned speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose techniques are as much psychological as they are practical. As he and the future George VI begin to work together, a tentative friendship forms as the taciturn king begins to open up about his feelings and find real friendship for the first time in his life.
The King’s Speech delivers a well-paced, beautifully written (an Oscar winning script from David Seidler) moving story of two unlikely outsiders who find themselves as unlikely kindred spirits. While it’s easy to see its Oscar win for Best Picture as a triumph of the academy’s conservatism (and there is a case to make, with the film’s heritage style and rather conventional structure and story-telling), but that would be to overlook the emotional impact it carries. I’ve seen the film several times now, and each time I find a lump forming in my throat as it sensitively and intelligently tackles themes of depression, isolation and fear and builds towards the heart-warming achievement of a man who learns his afflictions don’t have to define him.
Hooper (who scooped the Oscar for Best Director) draws superb performances from his actors, as well as bringing his own distinctive style to the film. He had already shown with his TV miniseries John Adams that he could shoot period material with all the immediacy and energy of more modern subjects, and it’s what he does here. His unique framing – with the actor’s often at the edges of the frame, in front of strikingly character-filled surfaces – not only grounds the drama in reality, but also captures a sense of the characters own personal isolation, helped by the frequent intimately-close shots. It helps the film avoid throughout from falling into the “heritage” trap, and instead feel (for all its royal family trappings) like a personal, intimate and real story.
And the intimacy is what makes it work so well – especially since so many of the scenes are made up of two characters sitting and talking, gently but with a slowly peeling honesty, about their own thoughts and feelings. The film is hugely successful in building up our empathy for the often over-looked struggles those who stammer go through. The terror that everyday events can bring. The burden of not mastering your own voice. The anger not being able to express yourself can bring. The resentment of how others can perceive your condition as anything from an irritation to a joke to something that with just a bit of help and effort you could brush aside like a sore toe.
The film has drawn praise for its depiction of stammering – although I am reliably told by an friend with an expertise in such things that the film’s connection of stammering with psychological trauma is old-fashioned and far from proven. But it realistically shows the burdens both it, and a troubled childhood, can bring and draws attention and sympathy to the condition in the best possible way.
A lot of this is helped by Colin Firth’s outstanding, Oscar-winning, performance in the lead role. From first seeing him, his George VI is a buttoned-up man with tension pouring out of every pore, who has chosen taciturn aggression as a defensive alternative to actually having to speak. Firth’s observance of mechanics of stammering is spot on (I wonder if he consulted Jacobi, who has had more than his own experience acting a stammer!), but above all he captures the deep pain, frustration and fear it can bring to a person. Firth’s King is a man who has lived a life feeling coldly shunned by most of his family – an upbringing he is clearly working hard to correct with his sweetly loving relationship with his own children. He’s bitter and angry – not only struggling to understand and express these emotions, but allowing them to crowd out his natural warmth, kindness and generosity which emerge as he opens up to Logue, and experiences genuine friendship for the first time.
Firth sparks beautifully with Geoffrey Rush who is at his playful and eccentric best as Logue. A warm, witty and caring man with a sharp antipodean wit and playful lack of regard for authority (the film mines a lot of fun from Logue’s playful teasing of the stuffed shirt nature of monarchy and the British class system), Rush’s performance is excellent. Just as the King has been dismissed by others for his stammer, so Logue has been dismissed as an actor for his Aussie accent and is scorned by his colleagues for his unconventional methods and lack of qualifications. But, by simply listening to a man who has been lectured to his whole life, who is frightened of himself and his situations, he helps him find a voice (in, of course more ways than one). Rush’s performance is essential to the success of the film, both as the audience surrogate and also a character with his own burdens to overcome.
Backing these two is a superbly judged performance of emotional honesty, matched with that take-no-prisoners bluntness we grew to know in the Queen Mother, from Helena Bonham Carter. The rest of the cast is equally strong. Pearce offers a neat cameo as a bullyingly selfish Edward VIII. Jacobi is overbearingly pompous as the face of the establishment. Jennifer Ehle is wonderfully playful as Logue’s put-upon wife. Andrews contributes a neat little turn as Stanley Baldwin.
Historically the film telescopes events for dramatic purposes. In fact, the future King’s therapy had started almost a decade earlier. Timothy Spall’s Winston Churchill – a rather cliched performance – is converted here into an early supporter of George VI during the abdication crisis (in fact Churchill’s outspoken support for Edward VIII nearly destroyed his career). Baldwin has been partly combined with Chamberlain. Other events are simplified. But it doesn’t really matter too much. Because the emotional heart of the story is true – and the relationship between these two men, and the positive impact they had on each other’s life is what make the film so moving.
Culminating in a near real-time reconstruction of the King’s speech announcing the outbreak of the Second World War – a brilliantly handled, marvellously edited and shot sequence with masterful performances from Firth and Rush – the film is an emotional triumph. Sure, it hardly re-events the wheel, with its struggle to overcome adversity story line and tale of royalty bonding with commoner – but it hardly matters when the rewards are as rich as this. With superb performances all round, in particular from Firth, Rush and Carter and sharp direction of a very good script, this is a treat.