Reviewed by: Jim O'Neill
|Featuring:||Colin Firth (King George VI), Helena Bonham Carter (Queen Elizabeth), Michael Gambon (King George V), Guy Pearce (King Edward VIII), Geoffrey Rush (Lionel Logue), more »|
|Director:||Tom Hooper—“John Adams” (TV mini-series)|
|Producer:||See Saw Films, Bedlam Productions, Paul Brett, more »|
|Distributor:||The Weinstein Company|
“When God couldn’t save the King, the Queen turned to someone who could.”
“The King’s Speech” is the story of an unlikely friendship. The setting is England in the 1930s. The film’s final scene takes place on Christmas Day, 1939 when King George VI delivers a holiday greeting to his subjects over the airwaves (that tradition began with his father, George V and continues today with his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II). There was little reason to be festive at the close of 1939. Germany had just invaded Poland, and England was about to enter World War II. Before that fateful year, the English seemed adrift and without a leader who could guide them through the coming storm. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler, the so-called “peace in our time” document. King George V had died, and his son, David, the future King Edward VIII, was next in line to succeed him.
David abdicated his title in order to marry the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. The two married and became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Their affair was, and I believe still is, referred to as the “romance of the century”. Edward VIII’s brother Albert, the Duke of York, was brought to the throne and crowned King George VI. Albert never planned to be king. He was content to let his brother have the limelight, especially since Albert was handicapped by a stammer that rendered him incapable of communicating with his subjects.
The film is a sometimes heartbreaking, often funny, and always intelligent portrait of a man who struggles to overcome internal demons at a time when his country readies itself to fight external ones. “The King’s Speech” is a personal story and a historical one. The two blend perfectly in what is the best movie of this year, and probably one of the best dramatizations ever made of an episode in history.
I haven’t felt the same kind of exhilaration from watching a British film since I saw “Cavalcade” many years ago. “Cavalcade” (directed by Frank Lloyd and written by Noel Coward and Reginald Berkeley) was made in 1933, and it also covers British history; there are some great World War I scenes and a quite memorable scene aboard the Titanic; and its story coincidentally ends not long before the events in “The King’s Speech” begin.
Tom Hooper directs his movie in a concise and constrained way. He has a delicate, even polite, touch. It’s certainly a British film, but it’s not done in the stodgy Masterpiece Theater style of a lot of English period pieces, and it doesn’t attempt to be the kind of sweeping epic that David Lean used to make. It takes us back in time, and yet it has an immediacy that makes us feel as though what we’re watching could be happening today. He was able to do the same thing with “John Adams,” the television series he directed for HBO, but he’s done a better job with this feature film. Time and budget constraints do have their upsides.
King George (Colin Firth) has a terrible time speaking in public. He cannot read a speech without stuttering over almost every word, to the dismay of his audience, his family and himself. His stern father, George V (Michael Gambon) has no patience for his son’s handicap, and his polished but vapid brother, David (Guy Pearce), teases him mercilessly. George has a good relationship with his daughters, the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. He doesn’t stutter as much when he is in their company.
His wife, Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), looks for a therapist to cure her husband’s handicap. The Royal Family have tried a number of them, but all were unable to stay the stammer. She finds an unorthodox tutor named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a would-be actor whose day job is helping vocally handicapped people find their voice. He agrees to accept her husband as a patient, but the sessions must be conducted on Logue’s terms. He does not refer to his student as “Your Majesty”; he dares to call the King by his nickname, Bertie.
Bertie is not amused. It is difficult for the King to accept this unorthodox student teacher relationship at first, but the bond between the two grows, and a friendship develops. They warm to each other over time, but they also clash, and those clashes have real teeth. A delicate balance is hard to achieve between the royal and the commoner. The relationship is more often indelicate, but it has all the ups and downs that real friends, ones who know and understand each other, go through all the time. Strengths and weaknesses get gauged; boundaries get set and get stepped over; hurt and resentment are expressed openly, while devotion and gratitude are more often held back.
Whereas George is a reluctant monarch, who is not just wary of the spotlight, but lives in abject fear of it, Lionel craves the attention and applause that he has always found elusive. In straining for recognition, he sometimes overreaches and offends his often touchy and temperamental student. He gets a bit too familiar at times, as when he tells Bertie that he might make a better king than his brother, the rightful heir to the throne. Bertie dismisses Lionel’s remarks as “impertinence by a nobody”, a cruel rebuke to someone who desperately wants to be a somebody.
You would think that a series of speech exercises and verbal drills would sink a movie in short order. There are a lot of them, and they are silly, but not silly enough to keep you from getting a good laugh out of every one. The humor is subtle, but straight on, even when Lionel encourages His Royal Highness to use gutter words of the four-letter variety as a way to connect the words of a speech that he has a hard time getting out. This is why the film has an “R” rating. The language is offensive, and for that reason I wouldn’t recommend the film for children, but there is no gratuitous vulgarity, and I couldn’t help but let out a snicker or two, along with a gasp, when I listened to a member of the Royal Family say “bugger”. And worse.
The script by David Seidler is a marvel of equilibrium. It’s a serious story that takes place in serious times, but it’s full of fun stuff. The humor is understated, but incisive. Early on, Lionel asks the King to tell him a joke; the king responds: “Timing isn’t my strong suit”. The King watches Hitler giving a televised speech at the Nazi Party Congress in Nurenberg, and he says: “I can’t understand a word he’s saying, but he sure can speak”. Yes, you’re thinking, I guess you’d have to be there, and you’re right. I encourage you to be there, in the theater, taking in the many joys this film has to offer.
The filmmakers respect their audience; the drama and the humor are applied with a light brush and not with a heavy hammer. They allow us to fill in blanks and reach our own judgments about what we’re watching. It’s refreshing to see a director and a writer work with that kind of confidence in themselves and in their viewers. Their project gets considerable help from Alexandre Desplat’s stirring score and Eve Stewart’s apt production design, which is, in equal parts, stately and earthy, and in every way fitting.
The acting is splendid. Colin Firth shines as the accidental monarch who wants to stay in the background but understands that time and country and fate have chosen him, and he must accept their proposal with the grace of a true king. Firth gets you to respect the king’s courage, but he also makes you feel the monarch’s sweat and tears. Geoffrey Rush, as the king’s teacher, complements and equals Firth, but never does one actor outshine the other. The performances are perfectly matched; nobody runs off with the movie or so much as pinches a scene. Rush has some memorable moments of his own when he auditions for the lead in a two bit production of Richard III. His portrayal is awful in the audition, but Rush reveals Logue’s love for performing and his deep-seated need for acceptance and approval in a way that is not embarrassing or cloying. His rejection is not the end of his world. It’s merely a part of it.
Helena Bonham Carter plays George’s wife, Queen Elizabeth (we knew her in recent times as the Queen Mother) with enough wit to make her reserve and ritual look light-hearted and wry. She’s a tough cookie who serves up more spice than sugar. Carter creates a figure that is her husband’s match in strength and determination, a rock on whom her husband and her country can depend. The elder Queen Elizabeth has here been given her due after the unfair and tawdry portrait of her that was put forth in the 2006 film, “The Queen”.
In these days, when we think of royal figures as princesses of hearts or candles in the wind, it’s easy to forget how this woman’s fortitude helped to save a nation. Adolf Hitler called the senior Queen Elizabeth the most dangerous woman alive, because she was a model of the unbreakable British spirit during the dark days of the Battle of Britain. When the Queen was asked if she didn’t fear enough for her own daughters’ safety to accompany them out of England and away to safety she replied:
“The children will leave when I leave. I will leave when the King leaves. The King will never leave.”
The film ends with the King making his speech to the people of Imperial Britain, an empire that at that time still stretched around the world. Lionel Logue was at the King’s side when he made the speech. He told the king to say the words as if “you are saying them to me”. The King then stepped up to the microphone.
In his speech King George VI quotes from a poem:
“I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown,’ and he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand in the hand of God. That shall be better than a light, and safer than the known way.’”
Don’t miss this remarkable film. Releasing “The King’s Speech” during the Christmas season was a good idea.
It’s a beacon in what can be a dark season for movies. It shines a light on the meaning of friendship, and on the meaning of courage, the virtue that makes all other virtues possible.
Violence: Minor / Profanity: Moderate / Sex/Nudity: None
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.