Staying Calm, Carrying On
On the edge of modernity, a monarch struggles to find his voice
by Jared Peterson
The opening sequence of The King’s Speech (nominated for seven Golden Globes this week including Best Motion Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay) might just be to stage fright what the start of Jaws is to fear of sharks. It is 1925, and Albert, Duke of York, is about to speak to the entire world. Thanks to a new-fangled invention called radio, his voice will be carried live to every corner of the vast British Empire. The camera touches slowly upon the details: the hefty, circular microphone, suspended in its frame like a hockey puck being drawn and quartered; a ballroom-sized control room, its walls full of dials and knobs, with placards identifying far-flung stations from Australia to Zanzibar; the grandstands filled with loyal subjects in their Sunday best, all eyes on the podium, waiting for the royal words. Interspersed throughout, we see the Duke waiting in the wings. He stands petrified, pressed against a concrete wall, choking on a wad of anxiety and terror as the time to air is counted down. This is more than jitters. Since childhood, Albert (played by Colin Firth… and the ladies go wild) has spoken with a stammer—words will catch in his throat or stall in midair, creating tense silences as painful for him as for his listeners. He steps to the podium. 3. 2. 1. Silence. It does not go well.
Neither does treatment. Experts regard the issue as a physical ailment. Albert’s father, King George V (Michael Gambon), scornfully treats it as a failure of will. Nothing helps. In desperation, Albert’s wife Lady Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) seeks aid outside the royal purview. She turns to Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian speech therapist and erstwhile actor who works out of a dingy basement office. Though his means are modest, Logue operates with unwavering confidence. He insists on absolute equality with his highborn patient, disregarding traditional formalities, even daring to call him Bertie, a nickname reserved only for family. Gradually, Bertie begrudgingly accepts Lionel’s audacious methods, and the two men form a working relationship that becomes a bond of friendship. That bond is put to the test when Duke Albert reluctantly becomes King George VI, widening the social gap between the two men at a crucial time for him and his kingdom. Soon he must step to the microphone again to put forth, in the speech of the film’s title, a firm, strong voice to unite and inspire his people at the dark dawn of world war.
The King’s Speech is satisfying on many levels. At its core, it is a familiar, straightforward tough-love story—a Stand and Deliver with royal titles—that depicts the triumph of confidence and compassion over entrenched assumptions and self-perpetuating failure. The titles themselves add another layer of pleasure because, whether we admit it or not, we Americans are fascinated by royalty and its trappings, and no less attuned than British audiences to the tension between Bertie’s privilege and Logue’s presumptuousness.
The acting is artful, and energetic even in moments of reserve; the scenery remains unchewed. Colin Firth has made a career playing frustrated men who feel more than they can or dare say (one reason, perhaps, that he is such catnip to adoring female fans). Bertie’s stammer is frustration made physical, and by mastering it Firth proves himself to be a different kind of action star, the Tom Cruise of the awkward pause. Geoffrey Rush, a character actor with an array of roles from the menacingly quiet to the irrepressibly flamboyant, is the even keel here, standing tall and firm, exuding a compassion and clarity of purpose that assure us instantly that Bertie and we are in capable hands. Other comforts include Bonham Carter (member of Team Harry Potter and Tim Burton’s muse) and Jennifer Ehle (Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice) as wise and dedicated wives.
Finally, the film’s seemingly distant timeframe is hardly a bygone era; it is merely a precursor to our current media-saturated reality. Then, as now, a wireless revolution delivered a previously unimaginable intimacy. As soon becomes clear, these technologies not only allow access, they demand it. For royals and ordinary citizens alike, what constitutes our own business becomes fluid and can easily slip from our grasp. All things considered, The King’s Speech is about the trials, satisfactions and complications inherent in breaking down walls.
The King’s Speech is rated R, mostly for foul language, which runs the gamut from the occasional “bloody” and “blessed” to steady streams of f-words and other curses that act as an unusual, and unusually effective, speech therapy. There are rumors about Bertie’s brother’s American mistress that refer to “certain skills” of an unnamed sexual nature. Otherwise, deciding whether to bring your teens will largely depend on their willingness to watch English people who do not cast spells.