Speak, Lord: 'The King's Speech' is no musty historical drama
King George VI—affectionately known as Bertie and father of the present-day Queen Elizabeth II—had a stammer so pronounced that public speaking was for him pure, unadulterated agony. His relationship with his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, an eccentric Australian who taught him to cope with this infirmity, is the unlikely but highly compelling subject of “The King’s Speech.” Director Tom Hooper’s beautifully crafted film transcends the musty historical genre, thanks to a fine script by David Seidler and superlative, award-worthy performances by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush as upper-crust reluctant pupil and his middle-class unorthodox teacher.
Though older than Bertie would have been at the time, Firth is well cast, and heart-wrenchingly conveys the visceral panic of facing a microphone, as his position increasingly required him to do. Firth skillfully makes the tortuous silences between each hard-earned phrase positively squirm-inducing.
The narrative begins with Bertie’s father, King George V (Michael Gambon), in full domineering throttle, and his elder brother David (Guy Pearce), as the reluctant heir to the throne. Bertie is to give a speech at Wembley Stadium, but the appearance is an embarrassing disaster.
When his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), the future Queen Mother, comes upon Logue’s name in a classified ad, she travels incognito to the cozily dingy digs Logue shares with his loving wife (Jennifer Ehle) and their sons. Even when Elizabeth ultimately reveals her identity, Logue—only momentarily nonplussed—insists that if he is to treat her husband it must be done on the premises. When the skeptical Bertie arrives at the flat sometime later, Logue lays down further conditions. They must be on a first-name basis. (“It’s better if we’re equals,” Logue explains.)
The beauty of Seidler’s script is that the relationship does not play out on predictable lines. Even with each breakthrough, there is a realistic tension between these two very different men. Indeed, after that first encounter, Bertie storms out, stating firmly that Logue’s methods are not for him. But after another disastrous attempt at a radio speech, he reconsiders. He and his wife humbly return to Logue, insisting they will just work on “the mechanics,” eschewing the psychoanalysis and Logue’s other questionable methods. Bertie declares that he will see Logue in a week’s time. “I shall see you every day,” Logue retorts firmly, and prevails.
Before long, Logue has Bertie singing his sentences to the tune of “Swanee River,” and cutting loose with a string of R-rated expletives long bottled up inside him. The scene is amusing, but it does limit the film’s otherwise family-friendly demographic appeal. Logue eventually reaches the psychological heart of Bertie’s condition: an authoritarian father, a cruel childhood nanny, and an epileptic brother hidden from public view, not to mention being a leftie forced to use his right hand and made fun of because of his knock-knees.
Eventually, Bertie’s father dies, and the shallow David is crowned Edward VIII. When Edward finally abdicates the throne for love of twice-married American divorcee, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), Bertie needs Logue even more. Ultimately, Logue coaches Bertie for a 1939 radio address on the eve of war with Germany. One of the fascinating points of Seidler’s script is showing how Bertie might have actually envied Hitler his gift of oratory, one that could so stir the public.
Rush, who served as executive producer, matches Firth’s extraordinary performance. Confidently autocratic as he insists the monarch adhere to his methods one moment, he’s endearingly enthusiastic about his love of Shakespeare the next, even though he appears rather amateurish when he auditions for a local production of “Richard III.”
The film does give its viewers the juicy satisfaction of royals stooping to deal with commoners, as when Logue’s wife— the lovely Ehle, who played Elizabeth to Firth’s Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice,” by the way—discovers the identity of her husband’s mystery patient.
All the roles are well cast. It is refreshing to see Carter playing such a warmly sympathetic role after her eccentric and ferocious turns as the Red Queen in “Alice in Wonderland” and Bellatrix Lestrange in the “Harry Potter” series. Pearce captures Edward’s callousness and authentically recreates the famous abdication speech. As head of the Church of England, he cannot, of course, marry a divorced woman. The saga of Edward and Mrs. Simpson are, for once, supporting players to Bertie’s story in this telling.
Timothy Spall does a passable Winston Churchill if narrowly avoiding stock impersonation. Claire Bloom makes a welcome return to the screen as Queen Mary. And no stranger to stammering himself, Derek Jacobi (who made his mark as the verbally challenged hero of “I, Claudius”) played Cosmo Lang, the archbishop of Canterbury, who regards Logue as an interloper. Overall, Hooper’s film has an exceptionally genuine period feel, and the cast has taken particular care to emulate the speech patterns of the day.
What is so lovely about the story—apart from the satisfaction in all such tales of someone overcoming a seemingly insurmountable handicap—is watching Logue help Bertie come into his own. For 40 repressed years Bertie was socially ill-at-ease, and misjudged by those around him. A postscript tells us the king and Logue remained friends till they died in 1952 and 1953, respectively.
The London location that serves as Logue’s work room is atmospherically derelict. The warm if cluttered domesticity of Logue’s family life is well contrasted with the elegant formality of Bertie’s household with his two young girls, the future Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret.
Seidler—who had to overcome a stammer as a child himself—is planning to produce a stage version of his film on Broadway next season. Of course, no matter how fine the stage version turns out, audiences will miss Eve Stewart’s production design, and the settings which add so much to the film’s texture. Finally, Jenny Beavan’s costumes are equally smashing.
But what makes the film so truly compelling is the vital human drama beneath the trappings.