Winter break is often a boon for the movie-going college student; returning home, we have seemingly endless amounts of time to waste our money at the box office. Personally, I slacked off this past break. One movie I saw during my time off, though, left a lasting impression, far more than one of its unnamed modern Western competitors did. “The King’s Speech,” directed by Tom Hooper from a script by David Seidler, is a must-see if you like biography, history, or just good storytelling.
“The King’s Speech” is one of those films that sounds like it should be incredibly dry—in fact, it takes a viewing of the movie to realize just how exciting and enjoyable it is. The basic plot is unremarkable: it follows the life of Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth, in a Golden-Globe-winning performance), from a year or so before the death of his father King George V (Michael Gambon) to the presentation of his speech—now as King George VI, King of the United Kingdom and British Dominions—declaring war on Nazi Germany. Along the way, his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) becomes King Edward VIII, but promptly abdicates, and the King (or “Bertie” as he’s referred to throughout the film) confronts a life-long speech impediment with the help of an Australian failed-actor-turned-speech-therapist, Lionel Logue, played by the exquisite Geoffrey Rush.
The relationship between these two men is the dominant focus of the movie. Perhaps it takes someone who has been through a similar process to fully appreciate all of the seemingly ridiculous exercises Logue has Bertie attempt: shaking the jaw, hopping around the room while speaking, singing his words, lying on the floor with his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) sitting on his diaphragm. Swearing profusely is also a technique (more effective than you might expect!). If the movie is historically accurate (as it purports to be), Logue’s work was decades ahead of its time: another speech therapist Bertie visits in the beginning of the movie has him attempt to speak with a mouthful of glass marbles.
Far subtler and more important than the external techniques, though, is the friendship that develops between Bertie and Logue. As the speech therapist teases apart his royal client’s stammer, he unlocks the psychological blocks that keep Bertie from addressing his public, and shares his own—many—failures as well. It’s a friendship that is tested more than once, usually because of Bertie’s temper, but it seems to stand the test of time; the movie concludes with a text mentioning that Logue was later inducted into the only order of knighthood awarded for personal service to the King.
Colin Firth’s performance as Bertie is—there is no other way to say it—captivating. A deeply complex man who becomes king because he must, rather than because he would like to, he is at the same time critical and defensive of the aristocracy to which he belongs. Geoffrey Rush’s Logue is a joy, equal parts humor and intelligence, almost unfailingly knowing how to push the right buttons to get Bertie to overcome his problem. Helena Bonham Carter, as Bertie’s wife Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother of Elizabeth II), shines as usual, in a tender portrayal of a woman doing her best to support her husband in unforeseen circumstances.
But perhaps the most compelling aspect of “The King’s Speech” is the way it brings the royalty—even though it was more venerated and respected than it is today—down to our level. In Logue’s stripped-down, dingy studio/office, Elizabeth and Bertie become just another couple. Bertie is a man trying to do a difficult job, and what’s most touching is that in the end—despite many problems and near failures—he succeeds. This film succeeds because it reminds us that the royalty are, after all, only human, and even the most powerful individual may have a small, bushy-haired, dingy-suited colonial behind them, gently coaching them through their fears.