Imagine you’re second in line for the throne of England, right behind your selfish, womanizing brother, your father the King is in ill health, and you have a terrible stutter. Your father despises you for the impediment, your country is poised to enter World War II, and that older brother is determined to marry an American divorcee. Except the King of England can’t marry a divorced woman, so you’re next in line for the throne.
The King’s Speech is a powerful and beautifully produced film about the challenge that the Duke of York (Colin Firth) faced when he was pushed into the public eye. The film opens with the Duke addressing the public, painfully stumbling through his written speech, one stutter and pause after another, a scene that’s surprisingly affecting, provoking great anxiety.
Fortunately for history, his faithful wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) finds the unorthodox Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) and convinces her husband to work with him to try and cure the stutter. Masquerading as “Mr. Johnson” for his visits to Logue’s run-down Harley Street office, Firth perfectly portrays the conflict between the desire to get better, the anger and frustration at having the affliction and the embarrassment of having a disability.
The simplistic speech therapies of Logue and their miraculous results were more than a bit reminiscent of the psychological treatment that Ingrid Bergman offers Gregory Peck to astonishingly positive results in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Quick, simple solutions make for satisfying cinematic stories, but it was difficult to believe that even after he realized that “Mr. Johnson” is the Duke of York that Logue would have insisted on calling him Bertie and behaving towards him as one would to a friend at the corner pub.
The performances in the film were universally strong, with a nod to Rush, who did a splendid job of portraying Logue, though it was puzzling why he had no Australian accent.
I also found King George V (Michael Gambon) compelling as a dying monarch who is so clearly disappointed in both his sons, seeing neither as suitable to ascend to the throne.
The King is an angry, unsympathetic man who pushes and browbeats the Duke after inviting him to read a speech that the King has just given and having him fail, stuttering and faltering over syllable after syllable. But was the stutter caused by this embarrassment, this lack of nurturing and love that the Duke experienced as a baby and child? Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether stuttering can be so simply diagnosed after a few informal chats, but while the performances were excellent, the story itself does lack some verisimilitude nonetheless.
Watching a film that’s this well crafted, it’s easy to overlook particular elements, so both cinematographer Danny Cohen and art director Netty Chapman deserve credit for their superb job of creating a wistful, slightly nostalgic mood with lighting that enhances the regal mood of some scenes while emphasizing the intimacy of others.
Rarely do we get to see films where every person in the production hits their mark and where the story is interesting, compelling, mature and thoughtful. The King’s Speech is one of those rare films and it’s one that’s well worth seeing and discussing afterwards.