Review: The King’s Speech

The King’s Speech (Alliance Films)
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter
Director: Tom Hooper

It’s 1936. The world is at a crossroads. England’s King George V is dying and the heir to the throne, Edward, Prince of Wales, has taken up with an American divorcée. The king is beside himself with rage but the prince is not backing down. Into the mix — or rather, mess — is thrown Bertie. But Bertie has a stammer.

Bertie, you see, is Albert Frederick Arthur George, Duke of York — His Royal Highness to you and me. Colin Firth portrays Bertie as every bit the royal, save for one very common fear — he’s petrified of speaking in public. He just can’t get his words out. His adoring wife, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the Duchess of York (played by Helena Bonham Carter) combines the pluck of a country Scots woman with a heightened awareness of her royal position — successfully portraying a great woman standing behind her potentially great man.

Fettered by his stammer and the weight of his station — the expectation that, as second-in-line to the throne, he must fulfill his royal duty and mingle with the people — Bertie seeks out doctors, quacks — just about anyone — to treat his problem. His own struggle parallels that which his country, his empire, is about to face: Hitler is on the march and his brother is in love and threatening to abdicate the throne. Bertie must face down these challenges while fighting the embarrassment of his speech impediment. Here, we catch a glimpse of the human side of the monarchy — the frustration, anger and temptation to just say f*** it — begin to dent the armour of our hero who, by the film’s account, is a dedicated husband and father to his two girls, the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. The Duchess comes to his rescue, first finding Lionel Logue, an unorthodox speech therapist (played by Geoffrey Rush) and then convincing Bertie to see him. A failed actor but a most excellent enunciator, Logue, an Aussie expat, has no idea who the Duchess of York is. Enter Bertie and suddenly it becomes Logue’s mission to not only treat the man but also help steel a king.

As the world begins to crumble around the reluctant Bertie, his inner strength is tested: his father dies, his brother is on the verge of abdicating and the world is at the precipice of war. Despite these singular circumstances, Logue treats Bertie like any other patient. He explores the Duke’s fears of his father, of failure and even the taunts of his elder brother. It’s these scenes, which are set in a dilapidated and sparsely furnished London garret, that Rush and Firth — teacher and pupil, subject and King — pull off Oscar-worthy performances. Bonham Carter also holds her own and, on a few occasions, manages to steal the scene. It’s easy to see why this movie was a huge hit at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People’s Choice award.

Bertie, now King George VI, fights his inner enemy. As he prepares to lead his people into battle, starting with an all-important rallying speech over the wireless, with his wife and tutor at his side, he overcomes and wins his personal war. The rest, as they say, is history. And with the quality of this film, it’s history worth reliving.

—Vivian Vassos