The term ‘heart-warming’ is one of the more frequently used publicity tags for promoting films, simply because it guarantees a good time. It suggests happy endings, laughter and above all, a non-taxing experience: nothing gory, nothing intellectual, nothing sad. (It seems a shame that many viewers apparently resent having to pay attention.) Where so often the heart-warming and the complex are mutually exclusive, The King’s Speech is an unusual exercise in both. Tom Hooper has directed a film in which a charming script and exemplary performances from Rush and Firth produce a highly rewarding viewing experience. This is a fascinating story that tickles the brain as well as the heart.
It is a little-circulated fact that King George VI of England suffered from a debilitating speech impediment, causing him to stutter and pause. Like many sufferers of non-mental disabilities, his sharp intellect lacked a voice, causing the undeserved disappointment and scorn of those around him. The King’s Speech begins with the meeting of George VI (Colin Firth) with unconventional Antipodean speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Their consultations are overshadowed by tumultuous family upheavals: George’s brother’s (Guy Pearce as the classically caddish Edward VIII) is carrying on a liaison with twice-divorced Pennsylvanian socialite Wallis Simpson and his father is killed by pneumonia, leaving a host of grudges unresolved. A royal family is by no means a perfect family. The King’s Speech, if anything, shows that what sets royalty apart is that their closest confidantes are more often than not professionals and colleagues, like Lionel, rather than friends.
The relationship between Albert and Lionel is formed of a bizarre conjunction of circumstances. Lionel insists upon subverting many of the relationships the reluctant Albert is used to: client and businessman, king and commoner, colonial Australian and well-bred Englishman. This begets a charming dance between roles, each man trying to gain authority, whilst also finding solace in their friendship. It is a film generous with spiky banter and little jokes, interspersed with physical humour; watch for Lionel’s hilarious summary of the Perth theatre scene. What is perhaps the most gratifying aspect of this humour extends beyond the joke however – every silly thing that happens in Lionel’s office equates to some real-world skill for Albert. As we know, learning to “paint the fence” has other benefits.
To portray a character afflicted with a condition you simply do not have is of great difficulty, yet Firth’s performance is captivating. Instant amnesia occurs – Firth is Albert (George’s at-home name), and light years away from Darcy territory (either one, girls). One tunes in to Firth’s delivery, getting accustomed to his halting speech. Yet it is hard to ignore the gaps. Culture little values reticence and now that communications are so instant, any period of waiting seems excruciating. We have forgotten how to pause, and associate slowness with stupidity. Perhaps Firth’s most amazing feat is his very careful timing of Albert’s progress. The improvements are evident yet glacial, making every minor advance an uplifting victory until soon Albert must broadcast a speech over radio to rally patriotism and conviction for the nascent war effort among his subjects.
Rush expertly treads a fine line between twee professor a-la My Fair Lady’s Higgins and a no-nonsense, unrelenting life coach. Guy Pearce and Helena Bonham-Carter are well cast and construct detailed characters, but Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill sticks out unpleasantly, verging on caricature.
The soundtrack for The King’s Speech is exceptional. Whilst comprised only of classical music or early jazzy singles (that is, music that existed during the late 1930s), it still functions in the style of a modern orchestral film score. The choices are elegant, particularly the inclusion of the second movement from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony during the final scenes.
In the business of being royal nothing matters so much as public relations. Looking respectable, marrying well and making a rousing speech every now and then are essential requirements that come with the privilege of being born into monarchy. The Royal Family are the original celebrity superstars, as any of the buzz around William and Kate’s imminent wedding, or Sarah Ferguson’s blunderous profiteering ventures will tell you. What makes The King’s Speech truly intriguing is that the core of the film is a human story – a truly moving narrative about the development of self-esteem and the formation of trust. These are relatable themes, and you certainly don’t have to be heir to the throne to be affected by them, or by a stutter or disability. Yet The King’s Speech is not just a small film about two men in a room having faith in each other and doing voice exercises. Theirs is also a story with political and historical ramifications. Every improvement made in their private and intimate consultations had an effect on the King’s image and his ability to communicate and inspire the confidence of his nation. In wartime, no less. There are two narratives here, which are deeply interwoven and which allow a period drama featuring significant historical figures who are impeded by complex social and political protocols, to be a very heart-warming film indeed.