“The family has been reduced to the lowest of creatures – we’ve become actors.” A sad state of affairs indeed, as pronounced by the King of England, George V (Michael Gambon), to his son, Albert (Colin Firth). The realization proves troubling in more ways than one to the stammering Duke of York .
The advent of "the wireless," as radio was so quaintly known, meant that it was no longer enough for a monarch or his family to simply look the part and occasionally vouchsafe one of those swively, restrained wave to the masses. A king or queen would have to speak, ingratiate him or herself to their subjects in their homes, their pubs, their places of work. This meant that the Duke of York, paralyzed by that stammer since childhood, would be forced into the acting, the theater of public life. Even worse, the relative safety on which he was counting, playing understudy to his brother, David (as ever, members of the royal family were as weighed down with as much nomenclature as their uniforms with medals and ribbons) is destroyed when his brother, as King Edward VIII, abdicates to marry the the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, within a year of ascending the throne.
The King's Speech begins eleven years before the tumultuous year that saw the death of George V and the abdication of Edward VIII. It's October 31, 1925, and as a BBC radio announcer informs us, the Duke of York is to address a large crowd at the British Empire Exhibition, as well as those from all over the empire listening via wireless. We see the poor Duke in a hallway, attended by his steadfast wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), contemplating his upcoming address. His pained expression would seem to indicate a strong likelihood that the royal stomach is soon to be voided. The speech goes badly for speaker and audience alike. Each stammer, each fragment of word or sentence blurted out, echoing jarringly through the public addresss system of the stadium, only serves to further paralyze the already reluctant speaker. Only the first fitful attempts to deliver the address are seen and heard, but between the alternately abortive sentence fragments and gaping silences, we certainly get the idea.
Numerous attempts to treat the Duke's speech impediment fail. One involves a hapless English doctor's approach that has Albert putting marbles into his mouth and then attempting to read. This "The classic approach that cured Demosthenes." Elizabeth's pointed, very sensible response: "That was ancient Greece. Has it worked since then?" Predictably, the attempt results in the marbles being hurled to the floor in frustration. His temper, Albert later admits, is one of his many faults.
The situation is so dire that Elizabeth actually consults an Australian, calling upon yet another expert, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Although slightly taken aback by Logue's casual manner and insistence that the struggling Duke be brought to him, Elizabeth egages the specialist and coaxes her very reluctant husband to his spacious Harley Street office. The friction begins as Lionel insists upon equality with his highness while they are in his office. "My castle, my rules," he says. The first blow to Albert's royal facade is Lionel's decision to refer to him as "Bertie," a nickname previously reserved for members of his family. It's just the first of many moments of discomfort for the Duke.
It seems a matter of record that Lionel Logue treated the Duke and King, helped him with his breathing and generally improved the quality of his speech. Whether Albert actually rolled around on Logue's floor, had Elizabeth sit upon his chest while he attempted to breath and shouted the likes of "BUGGER! BUGGER! BUGGER!..FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!...well, who's to know. Firth and Rush do play well off one another, providing much of the film's humor. During their first meeting, Logue stops the Duke from lighting a cigarette.
Lionel: "Sucking smoke into your lungs will kill you. "
The Duke: "My physicians say that it relaxes the throat."
Lionel: "They're idiots."
The Duke: "They've all been knighted."
Lionel: "Makes it official then."
Game to Mr. Logue. He leads one love.
The Australian-born Lionel Logue did work with his friend, Bertie, as both Duke of York and King George VI. Their work continued through the 1930's and 40's. However, Albert's speech was improved enough by 1927 that he was able to address the opening of the Australian Parliament in Canberra without stammering. That's all very nice, but not terribly dramatic. As if playing to Oscar voters in the cheap seats, writer David Seidler and Director Tom Hooper take the story big, setting up the payoff of the King's address to nation on September 3, 1939, announcing war with Germany.
If you listen to that particular king's speech (which you can do on-line, thanks to the BBC archive), you can hear the tense pauses, the struggle to enunciate certain words more than others. One can imagine Lionel Logue in the room with the king, helping him through the five and a half minute speech. Little is left to the imagination in The King's Speech. Rush's Lionel positively conducts the King through the address, arms waving. Once the king makes it through, there is applause in the BBC control room, adulation from Churchill and others. It's left up to the ever dutiful Princess Elizabeth to provide a little understatement. When asked "So how was papa?" by her beaming father, she says, "Halting at first, but you got much better papa." Poor thing - not even the current Queen's cute, cinematic, childish self gets to be effusive.
The real action in the King's Speech occurs in interior spaces, literally and figuratively. Exterior shots of London have the city mainly looking imperial and ghostly, even beset by residual Victorian fog, when Elizabeth ventures out to Harley Street to see Logue the first time, as if to emphasize the alien environs into which the Duchess was proceeding . In the various interiors, the camera is frequently close on Colin Firth, as he warily regards outsized, forbidding microphones or is challenged by Logue, his fear and discomfort painfully clear. At times, the camera faces out, giving us a fisheye perspective on crowds, reflecting the Duke or King's dread.
It's often a two-hander, The King's Speech. The friction and compassion Logue provides gets his friend where he needs to be, both for the sake of history and the film. Geoffrey Rush, generally restrained, is perfectly fine as Lionel Logue. The hamming is usually provided by David Seidler's script, veering his straight talk toward the sagely. He's abetted in his capital letter approach by director Hammer, in a Westminster Abbey scene in which Lionel goads Bertie by perching himself on the coronation throne like an insolent cat. "Why should I waste my time listening to you?" he asks, when Bertie demands he remove himself from the throne. "Because I have a right to be heard!...I HAVE A VOICE" the King thunders. Everyone in the Academy get that?
Despite the big context, the monarchy, its crisis and the impending world war, The King's Speech succeeds in its small, way focusing on Colin Firth as the reluctant king. He's nearly flawless.