The King’s Speech

Use all your well-learned politesse

I figured it out.  When trudging through the History half of my double-minor, what I really needed from my alma-mater’s History department was Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in place of the aging Vietnam-o-philes paid to drawl over the podium until my ears went numb.

The King’s Speech, Tom Hooper’s heart-wrenching film concerning the life of King George VI at the cusp of World War II, flips the term “historical drama” on its proverbial head.  Not only is the drama between three or four core characters more engaging than any silly, battle-crammed historical epic, but the narrative also manages better accuracy with historical events.

The story centers around The Prince Albert, Duke of York (who later, of course, becomes King George VI), played by Colin Firth.  After his unfortunate stammer causes disaster at Wembley Stadium’s Empire Exhibition, Albert (“Bertie”) seeks help, at the behest of his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), the beloved Queen mother, from speech therapist and failed Australian actor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  The narrative focuses on the relationship between these two men as the Duke struggles with confidence, knowing deep down that he will soon have to take over the responsibilities of the throne from his older brother David (Guy Pearce), who cares more about marrying American socialite Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) than leading the British Empire.  The inspired supporting cast also includes Michael Gambon as King George V and Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, who skirts caricature at times, but it’s a bit hard not to with Britain’s hammiest Prime Minister.

Despite the tension in the world at the time, Hooper wisely chose not to cast an actor as Adolf Hitler, while still employing some focus on him.  In the rare instances Hitler is shown, he appears as himself in actual footage from the thirties and forties.  The performances of the actors themselves are unrestrained, well-researched and certainly Oscar-grade: our sympathies shift between Firth and Rush, though never far away from either of them.  The Duke desperately needs his stammer to disappear, but he’s still resistant to befriend a member of the common folk.  Carter, who plays the elder Elizabeth, proves she can do more than act weird, and her character is racked with sympathy.  Logue aspires to be an actor, and despite his age still attends small auditions for major roles in productions of Shakespeare.  Pay close attention during the final shots of the film and try to imagine what Logue is really thinking.

The cinematography also delivers the occasional surprise.  Instead of epic (there’s that word again), majestic shots, Hooper constricts us into narrow hallways and oblong rooms.  Heroic closeups of Albert and Elizabeth pop up here and there, but Albert’s face always reflects familiarity with these narrow hallways, as if he embodies the very words attempting to escape his throat.  His long walks through the halls of the castle and along the sprawling streets of Britain mirror the nation’s march toward war – a war Albert himself will have to declare personally in the titular speech.  The big scene itself is handled adeptly by Hooper, wisely staying with Firth and Rush, briefly allowing us to leave the room to see the reactions of others, but even when we leave the room, the tension does not cease.

Historically, the film takes minor liberties with Winston Churchill and actually waters down Edward (omitting the fact that he was probably a Nazi sympathizer and, along with Wallis, was acquainted with Adolf Hitler).  As Roger Ebert states, however, “This film finds a more interesting story about better people.”  Albert and Elizabeth were the parents of Queen Elizabeth II, and have for some reason not been given as much attention as the universally antagonistic pair of Edward and Wallis.  I suppose it’s the same controversial flair that got that Sid and Nancy film made.

The King’s Speech (2010); written by David Seidler; directed by Tom Hooper; starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, and Michael Gambon