Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in “The King’s Speech”
The King’s Speech
Directed by Tom Hooper
Screenplay by David Seider
Starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter
Run Time: 118 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Among the things film does best is to chronicle a course of instruction: how to build an escape tunnel, how to speak proper English. For me, the most appealing scenes in “My Fair Lady” are the ones in which Rex Harrison’s Professor Higgins is teaching Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle how upper-class English diction and intonation will make her a lady. I could spend all night watching her transformation as she sings “The Rain in Spain” or intones “How good of you to let me come.”
Combine many such scenes with a historical drama replete with fabulous settings, both interior and exterior; add great acting by some of Britain’s (and Australia’s) finest; and you’ve got a winner.
In Tom Hooper’s (“The Damned United”) “The King’s Speech,” the Duke of York (Colin Firth), later to become King George VI, is taught by an irreverent Australian speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) to overcome the stammer that has crippled him since his childhood—a leftie forced to use his right hand, bullied by his brother and scorned by his father, he hasn’t had a chance. But as Duke of York, he does have speaking duties—one of which, at Wembley Stadium in 1925, he royally flubs in front of a menacing bank of microphones. “Bertie,” as he’s called by his family, is second in line to the throne after his raffish brother, Edward (Guy Pearce). When their father, King George V (Michael Gambon) dies, Edward does indeed become king, but soon resigns for “the woman I love,” the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson (a steely-eyed Eve Best). Bertie becomes George VI; his worst fear has come to pass.
In the meantime, however, Bertie has been trying to cure his stutter with the help of a series of incompetent therapists, one of whom makes him speak with a mouthful of marbles. Then Bertie’s wife (Helena Bonham Carter) visits a speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian who has been recommended despite his not being a doctor or holding any credentials whatsoever. Insisting that the Duke call him Lionel—and that, what’s more, he call the Duke “Bertie” (the horror!)—Logue starts out by censuring Bertie about his smoking (“I believe sucking smoke into your lungs will kill you”), then proceeds to instruct his patient in some unconventional techniques: sing what you’re trying to say, swear (Bertie never stammers while cussing). Above all, he persuades the Duke to open up and discuss his miserable childhood: the speech therapist as psychotherapist.
Of course the Duke resists. How dare this commoner pry into his private life? There are fits of royal anger and insults. Some of these showdowns seem contrived, but one has to allow screenwriter David Seider (“Tucker: The Man and his Dream”) some dramatic leeway. Later, Logue stayed behind the scenes for every speech that Bertie delivered, and the relationship developed into a life-long friendship.
Much of the pleasure of “The King’s Speech” derives not only from the “how” but also the “where.” Of course there are splendid interiors—cathedrals and royal residences—but also Logue’s humble and delightfully eccentric study, replete with peeling wallpaper, seedy furniture, and vast expanses of glass. The fog-swathed exteriors and crowd scenes are also effective.
That’s not to minimize the acting. Colin Firth (who is way better-looking than the actual George VI ever was) and Geoffrey Rush develop a true rapport. Helena Bonham Carter makes the most of what could be a mousy role. Other renowned English actors contribute: Derek Jacobi as the acerbic Archbishop of Canterbury; Jennifer Ehle as Logue’s wife; Claire Bloom as Bertie’s mother, Queen Mary; Timothy Spall as a cigar-smoking Churchill (though Spall, aside from his girth, doesn’t really look very Churchillian).
The film spans many years, concluding with the onset of World War II. Listening to Hitler give one of his customary rants to an enthusiastic crowd, the Queen asks, “What’s he saying?” to which the King replies, “I don’t know, but he seems to be saying it rather well.” And then the King gives his own speech to the shocked population that has just gone to war. And he says it rather well.