The nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them, but I can’t speak.
This statement admirably encapsulates the complexity of the story conveyed in “The King’s Speech”–a story where the personal and the political intersect and entangle.
“The King’s Speech” tells the story of the Duke of Yourk (the current Queen Elizabeth’s father), thrust onto the throne after the abdication of his elder brother. In the age of radio, required to address his people both at home and in England’s far-flung colonies, George VI–or “Bertie”– struggles to overcome a life-long stammer with the aid and friendship of his unorthodox Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue. After failed attempts at more traditional methods of “treatment”–from the use of marbles in the mouth to aid in pronunciation to gargling and smoking to relax the larynx–Logue offers a blend of breathing treatments and psychoanalysis, asking probing questions, refusing to use the duke’s royal title, and doing just what every faithful British subject is warned not to do—exposing the personal life of a public family and treating the monarch as a man.
You can’t watch this movie without being acutely aware of its political framework, which, given that this is a movie about the British Royal Family, probably goes without saying. Nearly every scene, from the opening of the film at the Empire Exhibition to Bertie’s wartime speech at its conclusion captured the precarious political point on which the British empire was trying to balance in the middle of the twentieth century as it struggled to maintain an imperial stronghold on the world amid the First and Second World Wars. Telling the story of King George VII’s speech difficulties highlights this slippery grip; even today, english is often thought of as the language of imperialism, and a monarch who “can’t speak”, as Bertie puts it with ironic elequence, communicates a message of national and ppolitical weakness when juxtaposed with Hitler’s skill as an orator.
The use of shakespeare also works to remind the audience of the association of the English language with cultural as well as political superiority. Logue’s recitation of Richard III’s speech is particularly effective in this context because not only is it, like Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, one of the most well-known speeches in the Shakespeare Canon, it is, more importantly, a king’s speech–a speech about power, delivered by a monarch who will stop at nothing to obtain it. Not to mention, it’s Shakespeare, and linguisticly speaking, far more elequent than Bertie imagines he can ever be.
The backdrop of wartime England also highlights the personal battle of bravery undergone in this story. as was so aptly said in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” , “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” In Bertie’s case, it was obviously the latter; this story of a stammering monarch is the story of a man who reminds us of the paradox of power–that those who possess the most potential for power are the ones who, more often than not, want none of it.
Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonam Carter–along with the rest of the cast–give outstanding performances. Firth’s interpretation of Berti as man, not monarch, is powerfully moving. He handles the mechanics of the stammer with amazing authenticity. I felt my own throat tightening at Bertie’s every word, tasting his tension. Most powerful are, I think, the scenes in which his stammer subsides during his conversations with Logue; Bertie slips so imperceptibly into normal speech that it underscores the dynamic of intimacy between the two men. We realize that in Logue’s presence, Bertie can be what he is–a man, not a monarch. Given the intense physical concentration and mechanical challenge of an actor trying to stammer and portray a man struggling to overcome precisely that, this is an astoundingly convincing bit of acting.
Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue is equally amazing; invasive, unorthodox, he isn’t so much aware that he is overstepping boundaries as he is endeavoring to dissolve them with his insistance on “total equality” that strips away the monarch’s mask to reveal the man beneath. Rush’s Logue is alternately cocky and compassionate and the perfect bold-faced reflection of the Bertie within.
Helena Bonham Carter conveys the strength and strain of the Queen Mother with equal gravity. Taking command one moment, tenderly comforting the next, her strongest moment is, I think, by far the scene in which she comforts a hysterically tearful Bertie, conveying the quiet strength that only a supportive spouse can offer.
I’ll be much surprised if these three–but especially Rush and Firth–don’t scoop up an Oscar or Golden Globe.
the humor provided a comic contrast to the more serious scenes without being jarring, the cursing and singing scenes both chuckle-worthy and offering relief from the intensity of following Bertie’s struggles on-screen. from a practical standpoint, some might have found it physically draining to follow the dialogue otherwise, though I found it intriguing. those used to characteristically Colinesque humor with his deadpan delivery will not be disappointed.
In short, to borrow one of Bertie’s favorite words, “Bloody” brilliant!