British films that make it to American screens these days often fall into two distinct niches: life is miserable and life is sweet (to borrow a title from the director Mike Leigh, who oscillates between the two). Given its quality headliners and high commercial profile (ding-dong, is that Oscar calling?), it’s no surprise that “The King’s Speech,” a buddy story about aggressively charming opposites — Colin Firth as the stutterer who would be king and Geoffrey Rush as the speech therapist — comes with heaping spoonfuls of sugar.
The story largely unfolds during the Great Depression, building to the compulsory rousing end in 1939 when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, world calamities that don’t have a patch on the urgent matter of the speech impediment of Albert Frederick Arthur George (Mr. Firth). As a child, Albert, or Bertie as his family called him, the shy, sickly second son of King George V (Michael Gambon, memorably severe and regal), had a stutter debilitating enough that as an adult he felt compelled to conquer it. In this he was aided by his wife, Elizabeth (a fine Helena Bonham Carter), a steely Scottish rose and the mother of their daughters, Elizabeth, the future queen (Freya Wilson), and Margaret (Ramona Marquez).
Albert meets his new speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Mr. Rush), reluctantly and only after an assortment of public and private humiliations. (In one botched effort, a doctor instructs Albert to talk with a mouthful of marbles, a gagging endeavor that might have altered the imminent monarchical succession.) As eccentric and expansive as Albert is reserved, Logue enters the movie with a flourish, insisting that they meet in his shabby-chic office and that he be permitted to call his royal client, then the Duke of York, by the informal Bertie. It’s an ideal odd coupling, or at least that’s what the director Tom Hooper would have us believe as he jumps from one zippy voice lesson to the next, pausing every so often to wring a few tears.
To that generally diverting end, Albert barks and brays and raps out a calculatingly cute string of expletives, including the four-letter kind that presumably earned this cross-demographically friendly film its R. With their volume turned up, the appealing, impeccably professional Mr. Firth and Mr. Rush rise to the Acting occasion by twinkling and growling as their characters warily circle each other before settling into the therapeutic swing of things and unknowingly preparing for the big speech that partly gives the film its title. Before you know it, Elizabeth (Ms. Bonham Carter), the future dumpling known as the Queen Mother, is sitting on Bertie’s chest during an exercise while he lies on Logue’s floor, an image that is as much about the reassuring ordinariness of the royals as it is about Albert’s twisting tongue.
It isn’t exactly “Pygmalion,” not least because Mr. Hooper has no intention of satirizing the caste system that is one of this movie’s biggest draws. Unlike “The Queen,” a barbed look at the royal family after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, “The King’s Speech” takes a relatively benign view of the monarchy, framing Albert as a somewhat poor little rich boy condemned to live in a fishbowl, an idea that Mr. Hooper unwisely literalizes by overusing a fisheye lens. The royals’ problems are largely personal, embodied by King George playing the stern 19th-century patriarch to Logue’s touchy-feely Freudian father. And while Albert initially bristles at Logue’s presumptions, theirs is finally a democracy of equals, an angle that makes their inequities go down in a most uneventful way.Continue reading the main story
The tension between them is at least as much temperamental as it is cultural or economic. Logue prizes informality. He calls Albert “Bertie”, begins one of their sessions by asking him if he knows any jokes, insists – rather boldly – “In here, it’s better if we’re equals.”
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This Gok Wan-like figure performs a reverse Pygmalion-ism by asking Albert to become less posh. In so doing, he’s also anticipating the present day when the Royal Family maintains a Twitter account, appears in the pages of Hello!, and seems sometimes to be only marginally more aristocratic than the likes of Cheryl Cole or Alan Sugar.
The double-handers between them, courtesy of screenplay writer David Seidler, are fraught and fascinating affairs. Logue’s spacious yet rather shabby office in Harley Street becomes a battlefield as the pair spar and joust. “My game, my castle, my rules,” insists the Australian. But Albert, for long stretches, isn’t having it. Stomping out at first, even when he returns, he’s often grudging and sullen.
Their encounters turn into therapy sessions. Logue’s belief that stammering has psychological as well as physical causes seems, in some measure, to be borne out by Albert’s revelation that he was left-handed as a boy but had been forced into becoming a right-hander. When he was young he’d also had to wear metal splints for his knock knees.
A new image of him emerges: a man without friends, one who fears he may suffer from the same epilepsy as his brother, and who frets that he might, rather like his ancestor “Mad King George the Third”, be known as “Mad King George the Stammerer”.
It can’t be easy to learn how to stutter. But Firth’s vocal performance is wholly believable, and he is absorbing throughout, out-plumbing the depths of isolation he achieved in A Single Man. He never tries to soften his character or to make him a mere object of pity.
Rather, Albert is prone to self-pity, to lashing out, and to snobbish disdain. When he cries, “I’m a naval officer, not a king”, the effect is as resonant as Eliot’s Prufrock lamenting: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
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Hopefully, Firth’s excellence – and Rush’s, too; his Logue has a touch of the spiv, but also rueful eyes that have never forgotten the shell-shocked soldiers he treated when he first arrived in Europe – won’t obscure thefilm’s compelling portrait of the evolution of sound in 20th-century Britain.
Hooper’s framing and shot composition often leave something to be desired, but an early close-up of a microphone, resembling nothing so much as a mini-Zeppelin, establishes the critical roles played by new technologies as agents of sonic democratisation.
That’s what makes the 1925 Wembley scene so compelling. Albert’s stammer, the echo in the stadium, the distortion caused by a poor PA system: all combine to create a dissonant medley that, while it mimics the jangle in his head, disobeys the new rules: royalty can no longer afford just to look right; it has to sound right.
Sounding right is something Albert’s older brother, David (Guy Pearce), also fails to do. Crowned as Edward VIII, he’s clearly unsuitable to be head of state; partly because he wishes to marry Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), and partly because he’s happy to turn Balmoral into Charleston, allowing revellers to whoop it up to jazz and rhythm-and-blues music.
This clears the stage for the film’s biggest set-piece: the moment when Albert, now King George VI, has to step up to the microphone and tell the nation that it’s at war with Germany.
Unfortunately, Hooper fluffs this scene. Opting to go for Oscar glory, to create as rousing a strength-through-adversity momentum as he can, he swamps Albert’s words with orchestral music.
This isn’t the film’s only miscue: Pearce looks far too young for his part and doesn’t sound at all English; Timothy Spall as Churchill resembles a distended bulldog who’s been chewing wasps; Bonham Carter and Jennifer Ehle (as Logue’s wife) are under-used.
Still, if The King’s Speech never quite cuts as deeply as it might, it’s at least as enjoyable an exercise in humanising royalty as The Queen or The Young Victoria, one whose emotional pay-off the makers of Supernanny or How to Look Good Naked would surely envy.
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