Directed by Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech shows the parents of present day Queen Elizabeth II at the turn of WWII. Germany has declared war, King Edward VIII has abdicated to marry his ladylove – the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson, and the spotlight is turned on Bertie, Prince Albert of York, the younger son who must ascend the throne and lead his country.
Except, Bertie has a problem, a speech impediment. His address at the closing of the 1925 Commonwealth exhibition in London has previously demonstrated that the succeeding King may not have the oratorical skills needed to rouse a country into war. Enter the queen, Helena Bonham Carter in a sassy portrayal of Queen Elizabeth. As the film’s tagline says: When God couldn’t save the King, the Queen turned to someone who could.
She hires a speech therapist, Lionel Logue, an Australian who has worked with shell-shocked war vets back home, has no official degree, is an aspiring actor, and uses unorthodox methods. When the Queen, in the guise of a commoner, informs Lionel that her husband’s job involves a great deal of public speaking, he naturally suggests a change of job as a solution. When told that that is not possible he questions: what is he, an indentured servant?
One of the strong points of the movie is its witty dialogue and Geoffrey Rush as Logue gets some choice ones. When the King lights up a cigarette the therapist advises him to stop. The King insists that his physicians claim it relaxes his throat.
Lionel Logue: They’re idiots.
King George VI: They’ve all been knighted.
Lionel Logue: Makes it official then.
What a lark!
Thereafter the film embarks on Logue and Bertie’s journey as they attempt a variety of techniques – singing, swearing, arm-swinging, facial exercises, and one particular routine which involves the Queen perched on a prone Bertie’s chest, rising-falling-rising rhythmically to his deep breathing! – and much hard work to correct the impediment. The relationship between the commoner and the monarch rides several crests and troughs and there is a point when the two come together after an acrimonious hiatus.
King George VI: Sorry, I’ve been terribly busy.
Lionel Logue: Doing what?
King George Vi: Kinging.
In 1939 England declares war on Germany and the King is required to make a speech that will be heard around the world by radio. This is Bertie’s big moment. Needless to say, the speech has to be faultless and soaring, especially when Hitler’s bombast has been busting the airwaves. For those who may think it’s only a stammer, for god’s sake, there is a scene that beautifully limns the challenge that confronts Bertie.
The King with his family watches a black-and-white film of his coronation and as the newsreel rolls it shows a fired-up Hitler rallying the crowds. Lilibet, his elder daughter, the future Elizabeth II, turns to him.
Lilibet: What he’s saying?
King George VI: I don’t know but… he seems to be saying it rather well.
The very English Mr. Darcy, oops Colin Firth, does a tremendous job as the King who must carry the burdens of others on top of his own, led by duty and accomplishing it with wit and dignity. The Oscar serves him well.
The King’s Speech has won four Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay. David Seidler, the writer, won me over with his Oscar speech when he said, “My father always said I’d be a late bloomer”. At 73 he is the oldest recipient and a peek at his life story shows what gives the film its emotional arc. Born a year after Bertie’s coronation, David Seidler overcame a stammer and was much inspired by the King whose struggles with speech were well documented. Apparently Seidler was researching the project in the 70s and abandoned it when the Queen Mother asked him not to pursue it in her lifetime. The wait of decades has paid off.
Some have criticized the film for its inaccuracies – the King’s stutter was not as pronounced as depicted, Churchill was cosy with his brother and not Bertie, the King was keen on a reconciliation with Hitler since he didn’t want another war so soon on the heels of WWI. Perhaps. But the film was made to entertain and not meant as a documentary. Additionally, the language of cinema is such that reality and history are often sidelined for visual appeal.
In Gladiator, Russell Crowe as Maximum essayed the role of Narcissus, the general who killed the emperor in his bathtub. Since that would not have been a stirring enough denouement for the tale of honour and vengeance that Ridley Scott had in mind, the movie shows Maximum slaying the emperor in the Colosseum watched by the public of Rome. In the adaptation of Jaws from Peter Benchley’s book of the same name, Spielberg changed the ending. Originally the shark gets entangled in cables and slowly spirals to its death on the seabed. However, Spielberg wanted the audience cheering in their seats and went for an adrenaline-packed shot where the sheriff stuffs an oxygen cylinder down the throat of the shark, ignites it and blows the enemy to smithereens!
What I liked about The King’s Speech is how the film, in many ways, is old-fashioned: the wife’s unflinching support of her husband, the remarkable relationship between the King and his speech therapist, the notion of duty and suffering in the line of duty, and of course, the seamless weaving of Shakespeare into the film’s narrative. Remember, Lionel Logue is an aspiring actor? In fact, he loves the Bard and there is a shot of him auditioning for a Shakespeare play! There are several allusions to the Bard in the film, plus some very apt dialogues that will please the denizens of Bardophilialand.
Then there is the hilarity! The film has several laugh-out-loud moments. As Bertie prepares his speech that will be broadcast before the war his therapist encourages him to use swear words to loosen his tongue.
King George VI: In this grave hour fuck fuck fuck perhaps the most fateful in our history bugger shit shit.
Go on, sing it! And while you’re at it, swing your arms and waltz around the room – it’s good rollicking f-f-fun!
As a film about overcoming obstacles, and of the power of friendship and love, it is very satisfying indeed.