Why did I put of seeing The King’s Speech? It takes place in my favorite time period (interbellum WWI & WWII in Great Britain), has one of my favorite actors (Mr. Darcy, natch), and from all the commercials seems like just the sort of stuffy, Oscar-baiting historical fare that I savor.
I finally caught it Monday, and I must say it was all all those things, but with an added sweetness that well explains its success this awards season. The King’s Speech is the fictional portrayal of Prince Albert (“Bertie” to his family), the stammering Duke of York who becomes King George VI right before World War II when his brother abdicates the throne in order to be with his love, the twice-divorced American Mrs. Wallis Simpson. In order to be able to make speeches to his people without faltering, Bertie gets unorthodox speech therapy from Lionel Logue, a failed Australian actor, played by the successful Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, after some gentle nudging from his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter).
Colin Firth deserves all the accolades he has been receiving for his portrayal of Bertie. Accents are hard enough, but a speech impediment, in differing severity, is very difficult indeed. Firth sounds like an angry bullfrog when he talks, and a gurgling baby when he doesn’t. He’s angry, fearful of the position, but wants to do right by his duty, which, as a King in 20th century England, is to speak into the wireless to his people. And that is one thing that he cannot do. As his father tells him, “Gone are the days when we used to be able to just sit nobly on a horse.” A King in 1936 cannot levy taxes, make a law, or declare war. But he can speak.
I admit to being fascinated by the trappings and rules of royalty. The scene where Edward VIII abdicates his crown – it’s just a signature on a piece of paper. But because of that signature (and that awful woman Mrs. Simpson, gah), it is Bertie’s face that would be put on coins, and not his brothers. And did you know the proper way to greet the Queen? “Your majesty first, and then ma’am like ham, not like parm,” pertly informs the Queen. Helena Bonham Carter’s early career included many Merchant Ivory period dramas, such as the lovely Room With a View, and it is immensely gratifying to see her playing witty rather than spooky. (Historical fun fact! While doing research for my undergraduate thesis on women smoking in Britain, I came across the Bonham Carter name several times in the society pages. If she seems born to play aristocrats in period pieces, well, she is!).
Historically, the movie is also fascinating. The BBC control room shows labels for all of the UK holdings – Canada, Australia, Nigeria. It must have been so astounding to think of how significant it was for people worldwide to be able to actually hear their monarch. (In this way, this movie is not so different from The Social Network: both are about learning how to communicate in a brave new way.) And the final scenes of people rushing to bomb shelters in London was a nasty reminder of what was yet to come.
The King’s Speech, if I may borrow a term from 2009, is at its heart a fine bromance. Bertie and Lionel learn to trust and respect each other. You can tell that Bertie was not a man born to be a king, but knows it is what he must do, and he does it nobly. There’s a fantastic scene of Lionel looking behind the royal family, waving to crowds from the Buckingham Palace balcony, and there’s a shiver of envy from the failed actor side, the side of the man who got rejected in an audition for Richard III on account of not being regal enough. As the king’s speech therapist, though, Lionel knows better. He has seen firsthand that kings are made, not born.