I am usually hesitant to watch period pieces that dramatize Important Historical Moments. These films typically become exercises in historical reenactment, soapboxing, or a combination of the two, stifling story and human drama. Furthermore, the desire to wink and nod at the audience fights against the desire to engross the viewer.
The King’s Speech manages to sidestep these problems and focus on a very personal story, even when set against a vivid historical backdrop.
The titular king begins the film as a prince, namely Prince Albert, the Duke of York, played by the regal Colin Firth. The second son of the lionly George V (Michael Gambon, better known as Dumbledore in the recent Harry Potter films), Albert is expected to lead an ordinary life, as far as the monarchy goes. He’s second in succession to his older brother, the galavanting playboy Prince Edward (Guy Pearce), and is expected to tend to minor matters while Edward waits to become king.
This includes giving the occasional speech, a task that Albert is terribly unable to do: he is afflicted with a crippling stutter. The film’s inciting incident is a speech that is so embarrassing that Albert decides, with the help of his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter in an atypical, subdued role), to finally conquer his stammer.
Throughout the film, shots are set up to accentuate the symbolic weight that royalty and his handicap place on Albert. Microphones loom large in the foreground, as do crowds and audiences, dwarfing the protagonist. The trappings of royalty are shown in disorienting scale. These shots frame Albert as he sees himself: a small, helpless man in the face of history. During an early consultation with a physician who utilizes Classical methods (without any success), the frame is tight and claustrophobic as Albert is tortured with a mouth full of marbles.
Elizabeth looks for alternatives and finds Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a peculiar man in an unknown, underground world. When Lionel meets Albert (or Bertie, as he will insist on calling him), the results are predictable. The prince alternates between regal pretension and outbursts of pure rage, while Logue keeps him off-balanced, yet on equal footing. Albert refuses to open up in the way that Logue would prefer, making his task an uneviable one. Logue must loosen the most uptight of patients – a stuffy, angry British royal – and cure a problem while only treating the symptoms. The film manages to dramatize the combination of speech and physical therapy that are part of Logue’s unorthodox methods.
While the cause of his stammer is unknown to Albert, it is readily apparent to the audience. His father the king is overbearing, deliberate, and blessed with a rich, ready baritone. His method for getting Albert to speak clearly is to bellow commands (“Relax!”). The king eventually slips into ill health and passes, ending the spectre over the prince. Only then does he open up to Logue about the extent of his psychic damage. He unloads a litany that is staggering: parented through fear, forced to change from left to right-handedness (as was typical far into the 20th century), fitted with metal splints to correct his legs, and abused by nannies. Still, a diagnosis is not the same as a cure.
As Albert works with Logue, the stakes are raised by circumstances beyond his control. Between his father’s death and Edwards petulant desire to marry an American divorcee, the government and monarchy face a crisis of legitimacy. Logue counsels him, but oversteps the tenuous balance of respect and friendship they have built when he verbalizes what Albert knows: Albert would make a better king, if not for his fatal flaw. Logue is cast aside, just as Edward abdicates, but with the coronation speech in sight, he’s brought back into the fold.
For the final act, the film fast-forwards to 1939, with Britain on the verge of war with Germany. The coronation speech proves to be a walk in the park compared to the three pages the king must read on-air, at this crucial moment. The contrast with the film’s opening speech, the disaster at Wembley, is great: the king falters at points, but perseveres. With Logue behind him, he steps out to greet his subjects, and finally comes into his own as monarch.
The King’s Speech owes much to the performances of Firth and Rush, who are strong candidates for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscars, respectively. It is an inspiring film that draws its strength from its characters rather than the monumental times it captures, which like public speaking, is not such an easy feat.