McGinnis: ‘The King’s Speech’ entertainingWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. … This means that to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” – Jerry Seinfeld
Bertie didn’t live long enough to hear that quote, but boy, could he have related to it. He suffered from a terrible stammer since he was five. He could barely string together three words in public without an interminable pause intervening. Even around his wife and family, where he was most comfortable, his problem persisted. This would be inconvenient for any of us, of course, but even more so when Bertie’s whole existence is centered around being cool, resolute, unflappable — as the King of England is supposed to be.
“The King’s Speech,” an extremely entertaining new film, is based upon the true story of King George VI, his surprising ascension to the throne, and how he learned to be a symbol of wartime stability and inspiration. It’s also about a transformative friendship between two men — Bertie, played by Colin Firth, and his speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush.
The film begins between the two World Wars. Bertie has gone through numerous therapists before he meets Logue at the behest of his wife Elizabeth (played by the ever-wonderful Helena Bonham Carter). Logue makes only the weakest efforts to honor royal traditions in Bertie’s presence, and his frankness stuns the future monarch. They arrive at an agreement — Logue will treat the physical side of his affliction only, with exercises and tongue twisters. No effort will be made to mine the emotional depths of what causes it. Logue agrees. Maybe he knows that Bertie will eventually open up of his own accord, anyway.
The pressure on Bertie to become a great orator isn’t just personal, of course. His father George V (Michael Gambon) is ailing. His brother (Guy Pearce), next in line for the throne, has an insatiable attitude of living his own life and damning the consequences. And the film is centered on that time when broadcast media was first taking hold as an unavoidable consequence of being a public leader. In an earlier time, George V wryly notes, all you had to do to be King was look good in pictures. Bertie doesn’t have that option.
His father and brother’s attitudes toward Bertie smack of disdain and shame. Maybe that’s why he makes such progress with Logue, who refuses to look at him as anything but an equal. Their relationship as more than just doctor and patient is crystallized after George V’s death. A distraught Bertie appears unannounced at Logue’s office. He tells of his father, his brother, his upbringing, his life — all the while assembling a model plane that Logue’s children have left behind. We realize we’re seeing a boy who never really grew up.
Firth is the perfect actor for the role. A torrent of emotions can be read on his face at practically every moment. He plays Bertie as a man who is increasingly uncomfortable with what is expected of him — a life he never asked for, but one he can’t turn away from. His brother may have it in him to walk away from it all, but Bertie knows and respects the duty he is eventually given, even if he’s terrified of it. In Geoffrey Rush, the future King has a wonderful foil, a man who has secrets and ambitions of his own, but also feels a sense of duty — not of a subject to a monarch, but of one friend to another.
If there’s a flaw in the film, it lies in a narrative that is perhaps a bit too conventional for its own good. The story takes us inside a fascinating era in history, and creates some wonderfully interesting characters, but really its overriding structure is pretty routine. It turns Bertie’s suffering into practically an underdog sports story, with the unsure monarch rising to adversity, and makes his speech to the nation on the eve of World War II into its own version of The Big Game. One can’t help but think there are fascinating stories to be found in King George VI’s wartime experiences, but the movie ends before any of them occur.
But still, “The King’s Speech” is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable film, with two stellar performances at its heart. Like 2004’s wonderful film “The Queen,” here is a movie that takes us inside the closed universe of the monarchy. The Royal Family have become little more than living symbols with no real power (as Bertie himself notes at one point), and yet are expected to speak for a nation. For George VI, learning to give his nation a voice was the greatest challenge of all.
NOTE: The movie is rated R for occasional profanity. I hope a few f-bombs here and there will not dissuade parents from showing this film to intelligent and interested teenagers. I think they’d find it very entertaining, and perhaps even inspiring.
Email Jeff at PopGoesJeff@gmail.com