If I am King, where is my power? Can I declare war? Form a government? Levy a tax? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority because they think that when I speak, I speak for them.
When you think about it, the story of a guy with a speech impediment getting over this difficulty with the help of a therapist is not exactly the stuff a gripping drama is made of. Not even if the guy is a king. But then, a film isn’t so much about its subject as its treatment.
Did the people of that time (late 1930s England) actually believe that the king’s voice mattered? I am sure a few did, and equally sure a few didn’t. You don’t actually see “the people” much in this film. You see the king and those around him, and it mattered to them, very much. And so, as we are drawn into this tale of a stammering king who turns to a failed Australian actor for help, it matters to us.
There is a more or less identical shot that appears twice in the film. The first comes right at the beginning, when the Duke of York is called upon to make a speech. There is little else apart from his face in the shot — every little twitch is magnified. Not only does it demand a lot from the actor, it also makes for a sly little commentary on the impact of radio and television on public figures who could remain not so public until then. Royalty had to become actors, says the then king, George V.
The same shot is repeated right at the end, when the same man, now king (George VI), is called upon to make another speech. This one is on the radio, which means that only he and whoever he admits into his life is privy to his agony. But his voice shall be heard across His Majesty’s colonies, and the radio is merciless in what it broadcasts. This time, he gets it right. He isn’t perfect, but he has found his voice. The drama is heightened by the context of the speech — it is the king’s address to the nation just after England has declared war upon Hitler’s Germany, and the contrast between the charismatic demagogue and his diffident enemy tells its own little war story on the side.
Between these two shots, the story is brought alive by a wonderful bunch of actors.
Geoffrey Rush plays Lionel Logue, the speech therapist. He makes no secret of the fact that he doesn’t hold much by royalty, and their unlikely friendship grows precisely because he treats the king like a normal human being. The early scenes follow the Mismatched Buddy Movie playbook to the letter, but Rush’s deliberate performance elevates these interactions.
Helena Bonham Carter is wonderful in the role of the queen. There is a moment early on when she first meets the therapist — he has just come out of the loo and proffers his hand for her to shake — not an uncommon comic device, but watch how she plays it, with just a second’s hesitation and nary a twitch of her facial muscles. So crucial is her role by her husband’s side that the climactic speech sequence ends up focusing on her reaction while he tries to get through the last sentence (which ends with prevail — words beginning with p were problematic for him).
Colin Firth is magnificent as a man who deems himself unfit to be king but is saddled with an elder brother who would rather abdicate than live without the woman he loves. George VI had self-esteem issues and a lot of pent-up anger stemming from it, but he was also a good man with a wry sense of humour and a strong sense of duty — aided by some superb writing, Firth lets us see all of this without ever seeming to try too hard. Some of his scenes ought to be in acting textbooks in the chapter on understatement. Watch the wordless exchange between him and Carter where he returns from a meeting confirming his accession. You don’t see what happened in there, and he doesn’t tell her anything per se, but you know exactly how it must have gone and how he felt about it.
The only slightly incongruous note for me came right at the end, when the king was congratulated by everyone around him for his speech. Given the solemnity of the occasion, their exuberance seemed a bit unlikely — surely, a quieter approach would have worked better?
And yet, I am disinclined to complain too much about this. In the grand scheme of things, especially when that scheme includes World War Two, a king’s speech isn’t all that important an event. But just because a small story exists within the context of a much bigger one doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to be told.