The King’s Speech, 2010.
Directed by Tom Hooper.
Starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Guy Pearce and Timothy Spall.
Britain’s Prince Albert strives to overcome his humiliating stutter with the help of an unconventional speech therapist.
His Royal Highness, Prince Albert, the Duke of York, stutters. He’s not the first stutterer on film by any means; Michael Palin played one in A Fish Called Wanda with enormous sensitivity and hilarity, but The King’s Speech presents possibly the first speech impediment story to make us think of Rocky.
Rocky? Yes, Rocky. The two films concern different times and different people, but the circumstances are the same, and more importantly, so are the stakes. Both men must take on a seemingly impossible challenge – whether it’s going the distance with the heavyweight champ or delivering a live wartime speech to the nation, each man is faced with only one real obstacle: himself.
After a catastrophic public appearance at Wembley Stadium where his stammer renders him utterly speechless before a crowd of thousands, the Prince (better known to his family as ‘Bertie’) is despondent, miserable, and perhaps less visible, frightened. As second in line to the throne, he hasn’t the luxury of becoming a recluse. A Prince is expected to speak publicly, a nightmare and a personal living hell for Bertie.
We feel each crushing defeat with Bertie, as he struggles even to speak to his older brother without seizing up into helpless silence. He fights to keep his dignity, but the times are unforgiving and ignorant of his condition. Doctors impatiently hiss “E-nun-ci-ate!”; his own father bellows “Just say it!”; he has only his wife to turn to, and even she’s running out of ideas.
As a last resort, they turn to speech therapist Lionel Logue (Rush, on exceptional form), operating from a crumbly old office, with no secretary, no credentials and no wallpaper. Lionel is uniquely talented in his field, but he seems incapable of basic formalities and oddly unorthodox in his methods.
The two men are worlds apart, putting every ‘odd couple’ buddy cop pairing to shame with their frankly bizarre relationship. Bertie has never had friends. A Prince of the Realm is not allowed friends. And yet this chatty little Australian insists they must be friends for his treatment to work. He also insists on rolling around on the floor reciting tongue twisters, but we somehow get the impression Lionel would be quite happy doing this long after Bertie’s gone home.
When Bertie finally speaks clearly, without hesitation, his voice is an absolute delight to hear. Colin Firth captures his subject’s warm, noble tones with an uncanny likeness that endows The King’s Speech with a startling power over the viewer. The film very quickly uses this power to stir us with an unerringly mature script and crisp, seasoned cinematography.
The A-list supporting cast do an admirable job, playing real historical figures in that pre-war era where the English accent can all too easily slip into parody. Helena Bonham Carter shines as the rock Bertie clings to, as the world around him conspires to make him the King he never asked to be. Guy Pearce is the playboy Prince Edward (briefly King Edward VIII), allergic to responsibility and unmarried women. Michael Gambon creates enormous impact as George V, showcasing the level headedness of an experienced diplomat and the impatience of a misguided father.
That said, even the big names can slip up. Derek Jacobi looks as if he’s about to have kittens every time he’s on screen, and Timothy Spall’s Churchill evokes more of the insurance dog than the statesman. It doesn’t matter, though. It’s the Royals that are crucial to this story; through Hooper’s brutally frank insights into their affairs and affectations, we see what made Bertie the man he is, and how he comes to consider himself worthy of his people.
Bertie desperately fears letting down his people, especially in their hour of need, at the outbreak of war. It’s no spoiler to reveal that this first wartime speech is his greatest test. This is textbook history. This is the speech that moved the other Dominions to ally themselves with Britain.
We know from history that George VI wasn’t ridiculed as a stutterer; he was an inspiration to a nation under siege. Yet Hooper plants us so firmly in his shoes, painting such a vivid portrait of a troubled man that we hardly dare to believe he will ever overcome his crippling self-doubt. Sound like any Southpaw boxers from Philadelphia we know? Hell yes it does. This is Rocky for Monarchs, and certainly no less of a future classic for it.
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.
Movie Review Archive
54th BFI London Film Festival: The King’s Speech Review
54th BFI London Film Festival: The King’s Speech Q&A
Video: Colin Firth discusses The King’s Speech