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The King's Speech

Directed by Tom Hooper with Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Claire Boom, Derek Jacobi, Guy Pearce, Anthony Andrews, 118 minutes, color, 2010

Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter

Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter

By Carter B. Horsley

"The King's Speech" is a superb and splendid film that crystallizes a very important moment or two in 20th Century history with great sympathy, suspense and sophistication and makes us revere the principals in this true story with tremendous respect.

A great cast gives very great performances, especially Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, the speech therapist who manages, in the best traditions of Svengali, to get King George VI to blurt out his historic speech in 1939 to rally Britain and the world to oppose Hitler and, in the process, overcome his very bad case of stammering.

As depicted by Rush, Lionel is not capable of being intimidated by royalty, etiquette or his own failings.  He is simply remarkable and until this movie an unsung hero, in the public's eye at least, at the very center of the world's greatest drama.

The story is all the more fascinating because it occurs during a truly unthinkable moment in English history, the abdication of King Edward VIII because he is completed dominated by a despicable adventuress, a true dragonlady, an American divorcé, Wallis Simpson.

Most of the world, of course, was oblivious to the drama not only at the time but for decades after and what makes the film so powerful is that it turns on the relatively inconsequential personal problem of stammering, a rather overlooked Achilles's Heel.

Unlike the pageantry and grandeur to which we have been vicariously accustomed to in "Masterpiece Theater" productions, this story plays out mostly in a quite run-down through spectacular apartment badly in need of a major paint job, a far cry from the gilt of the king's normal accoutrements and quarters.  Indeed, much of the film's early interest lies in the incongruity of the setting and Mr. Logue's personality.  There is a major room in the apartment that looks like it is the scrubbed former dining room of Miss Haversham in "Great Expectations," (see The City Review article) a space of infinite proportions and curved skylights that might be the setting for some outrageous protest in "The Horse's Mouth."  

The film opens with Prince Albert, played by Colin Firth, giving a speech at the opening of the British Empire Exhibition in 1925.  Because of his serious stammer, he is unable to finish it and his wife, played by Helena Bonham Carter, sets out to get him a speech therapist.  One stuffs marbles into his mouth, à la Demosthenes, but to no apparent avail.  Albert, who is known in the royal family as Bertie, is the younger brother of Edward, who is wildly and irresponsibly infatuated with Wallis Simpson and heir to the throne.  Their father, played by Michael Gambon, believes that Albert is the better choice but the rules of succession mean that he will be followed by Edward, played wimpishly by Guy Pearce, the ambitious young detective of "L.A. Confidential.".

Firth is a large, imposing, elegant and quite handsome man, which makes his shyness because of his stammer all the more frustrating and disturbing especially in an increasingly media-conscious world where mere appearance is not everything.

His wife finally discovers Lionel Logue but does not reveal the identity of her husband and there is considerably wrangling over the fact that Logue insists that he visit his office and play by his rules.

Eventually Albert agrees to visit Logue and their encounter is fraught with unwitting breeches of etiquette by Logue who insists on using first-names.  Albert, desperate to overcome his stammer, finally succumbs, in part because of fears that his brother may marry Simpson and that he may have to become king, a public king who speaks.

The cure is not easy.

Logue suggests that Albert speak slowly, which is a royal's perogative and adds gravitas

Logue suggests that Albert sing his lines.

Logue suggests that Albert lose his inhibitions, which prompts Albert to prance about wildly spewing forth expletives with great and very serious gusto.


Progress is made but a discovery that Logue is not a real professional speech therapist, or at least one with degrees and diplomas and the like, angers not only Albert but the Archbishop of Canterbury and it looks like all that very hard and secret work may be for nought.

Rush, who is a modern-day Charles Laughton able to leap mountains of characters with the twitch of a single eyebrow, or so it seems, is a proud man and when finally aware of his pupil's royalty is not incapable of the niceties of pomp.  Though offended that Albert  has lost his trust in him, he genuinely wants to help him.  Albert, alarmed at his brother's increasing recklessness, realizes he must turn back to Logue for help and is willing to take on the wrath of the archbishop and other advisors.

None of this is easy and Firth and Rush are astoundingly good in raising the stakes to a fever pitch of emotions.  

Were it not so personally painful, twould be glorious!

Helena Bonham Carter is sublimely excellent as the uber-supportive wife and future Queen Mom (see The City Review article).


In his December 15, 2010 review of the film, Roger Ebert observes that "Director Tom Hooper makes an interesting decision with his sets and visuals. The movie is largely shot in interiors, and most of those spaces are long and narrow. That's unusual in historical dramas, which emphasize sweep and majesty and so on. Here we have long corridors, a deep and narrow master control room for the BBC, rooms that seem peculiarly oblong. I suspect he may be evoking the narrow, constricting walls of Albert's throat as he struggles to get words out."

The climax of the film is the speech and Ebert notes that "Hooper's handling of that fraught scene is masterful. Firth internalizes his tension and keeps the required stiff upper lip, but his staff and household are terrified on his behalf as he marches toward a microphone as if it is a guillotine. It is the one scene in the film that must work, and it does, and its emotional impact is surprisingly strong. At the end, what we have here is a superior historical drama and a powerful personal one. And two opposites who remain friends for the rest of their lives."

In his November 23, 2010 review of the film at  Salon.com, Andrew O'Herir said he was prepared to resist the movie as a "British period piece, suffused with imperial nostalgia, about a member of the royal family nobly battling a disability," but upon seeing it realized that it is "warm, richly funny and highly enjoyable human story that takes an intriguing sideways glance at a crucial period in 20th-century history...."

"For all the pomp and privilege of his upbringing," he wrote, "Bertie was essentially an abused child, tormented by nannies, plagued by childhood ailments and raised in isolation from the outside world. He barely knew his parents...had no real friends, wore painful leg braces and suffered from early childhood from a chronic stammer that made his public appearances painful for everyone. Perhaps the last monarch reared in the old aristocratic style, with a father who ruled at least nominally over one-fourth of the globe's population, Bertie was literally a man trapped between worlds. As Firth plays him, the prickly prince (who spent his early career as a naval officer and teacher) is eager to take offense yet painfully shy, fully aware that the monarchy has become a defanged symbolic contrivance in an age of radio and motorcars, yet halfway convinced that divine right is still involved somewhere. The unlikely story that director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler spin in 'The King's Speech' is pretty much true: Bertie and his wife, the high-spirited Princess Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, absolutely sparkling in a second-fiddle role), somehow find their way to an Australian-born speech therapist and amateur actor named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, in his maximum wisdom-and-twinkle mode). Logue isn't a doctor, has no academic credentials and is viewed by proper authorities as a charlatan. But his then-radical idea that stuttering was as much a psychological problem as a physiological one, and that its roots lay in childhood, is exactly the medicine the future king required."

In his November 24, 2010 review in the Village Voice, Jay Hoberman notes that Bertie overcomes "his natural priggishness thanks to the eccentic ministrations of unconventional, adorably déclassé, transplanted Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue."

Incredibly, Albert now King George VI summons Logue at the very last minute to help him deliver the speech.  He arrives in the nick of time to be secluded with the king and a microphone and proceeds to "conduct" the speech in the privacy of their very special and very important and quite extraordinary relationship.  The right man at the right time.  Not surprising, the pair remained close.

Apart from its great acting, casting, direction, sets and subject matter, the film matters greatly because it focuses on the importance of individuals, not perfect individuals, but honorable and human individuals who must rise to an occasion and are thankful for the great help of a loving partner.

Bravo!

Rush must get an Oscar and hopefully the film will garner many more!



This film is ranked 81st in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films



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