Appellate Judge James A. Stewart notes that Director Tom Hooper now has Prince Albert in a film can.
Our review of The King's Speech (Blu-Ray), published April 14th, 2011, is also available.
"I'll be Mad King George the Stutterer, who let his people down so badly in their hour of need."—King George VI
Director Tom Hooper calls King George VI's speech therapy a "marginalized story." Indeed, we're reminded throughout the special features that the diaries and notes that formed the basis of The King's Speech weren't brought forward until the start of production neared. I suspect it was a good thing that the London papers weren't opining on the King's stutter during World War II, but the story is a fascinating one—even more than half a century later. I'm equally glad that Hooper and his team made the movie about an aspect of history that reveals King George VI as a human being.
Although it's not your typical historical epic, The King's Speech was deemed worthy of four Oscars.
For screenwriter David Seidler, The King's Speech is a personal story, since he has dealt with a stutter himself and listened to King George VI in his younger days.
Facts of the Case
In 1925, the Duke of York (Colin Firth, Bridget Jones's Diary) gave his first speech on live radio, from Wembley Stadium; he wished it could have been his last. However, that's not very likely for a possible heir to the British throne. Eventually, the frustrated royal, at his wife's urging, visits speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, The Tailor of Panama), a would-be actor with experience helping World War I soldiers. They start a long working relationship. That's a good thing, since the Duke's brother (Guy Pearce, L.A. Confidential) prefers his married lover Mrs. Simpson to the throne. Worse yet, Adolf Hitler's taking over Europe, and what's needed to stop him is a strong British monarch with strong speaking skills.
How can The King's Speech hold a viewer's attention for two hours? The story is pretty straightforward: The Duke of York goes into speech therapy and eventually is able to deliver a vital speech as Britain embarks on World War II. Preparing a king, even one who stutters badly, for an important speech is hardly the significant dramatic event you'd expect as a movie's payoff. Moreover, the viewer knows what's going to happen and probably is familiar with any possible biopic nuance. I'm absolutely without worry about spoilers here, because there are just no surprise plot twists to spoil.
One answer lies in Colin Firth's assertion in the features that the movie is a "bromance." To make the story of the king working with a speech therapist effective, the audience has to be thinking in terms of a more conventional type of emotional payoff, and a buddy story is as good as any. The Duke of York bristles at first when Lionel Logue calls him "Bertie," but he soon jumps into therapy. Moments throughout, as Bertie tells Logue about his childhood or jokes about his stutter, let the viewers glimpse this growing friendship. Most of these are small reveals, keeping the emphasis on the therapy even as they show the audience something deeper. My favorite was the one in which Bertie ends up reassuring Logue, who's nervous because his wife has returned home early while Bertie is paying a visit. Firth and Rush share an instant rapport that comes across in these dramatic bits as well as in the sillier bits, as when speeches are delivered with profanity or song as part of the therapy.
The other answer to what keeps The King's Speech compelling is the portrayal of Bertie himself. Logue's insistence that the royal and the therapist work on a first-name basis puts us on a first-name basis with a British monarch, as well. Bertie is also humanized by Firth's portrayal. Bertie's hesitation is evident even as he tells a story to his young daughters (one of whom is now Queen Elizabeth), and his love for them is equally evident. Firth always keeps a hint of uneasiness in Bertie's demeanor, along with the modesty that was described in Logue's diaries. At the same time, Firth lets Bertie's determination come through in even those silly moments. The costume designer's choice to put Firth in ordinary, not regal, clothing in most scenes (mentioned in the features) also helps in a quiet, background sort of way.
Helena Bonham Carter (Howards End) as Bertie's supportive wife—another Queen Elizabeth—isn't a stutterer, but she brings across a sense of quiet normalcy that grounds and complements Firth's royal. With my attention dominated by Firth and Rush in the leads, I had no trouble buying into the historical figures portrayed here, even the familiar Bonham Carter and Guy Pearce.
With the then-new technology of radio presenting a problem for the Duke of York, some viewers might be thinking forward to our modern era, especially with the nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton coming up as I write. The arrival of radio, no doubt in conjunction with the royal scandal which put King George VI on the throne, put the monarchy in a spotlight that now shines on them constantly. Seeing how radio affected Bertie, one can begin to extrapolate the pressures on William and Kate on the eve of their nuptials. Thus, anyone who's excited over the royal wedding should see The King's Speech.
The look of The King's Speech doesn't draw much attention, but that appears to be by the director's choice; dazzling visuals would have distracted from the story. Despite the understatement, Tom Hooper's hand is quite visible a few times, as when he juxtaposes the exercises the Duke of York is doing with an actual speech. His decision to put music behind the war speech is effective, referencing an earlier scene in which the king discovers that listening to music as he speaks cuts down on the stutter. When you get to the director's commentary, you'll realize how much work Hooper and his team put into a look that, for most viewers, will be overshadowed by the acting; among other things, my attention was drawn to some matte paintings and CGI work that I wouldn't have spotted on my own. The movie looks a bit drab at times with its browns and yellows, but the transfer looks good.
Two speeches by the real King George VI—one the famous speech shown in the film, the other given after the war—are the best of the extras. The war speech from 1939 is powerful, even when you can hear the hesitation in his voice, and particularly interesting when I was looking for the flaws. The postwar speech in 1945 is interesting because it shows signs of progress in the king's speaking, especially so because it appears the king had already made a lot of progress by 1939.
"The King's Speech: the Inspirational Story of an Unusual Friendship" is a good making-of feature. It's got a little bit of promo in it as it talks about all the familiar faces viewers will see on screen, but it says a lot about the thought that went into the portrayals and the production. Hooper's commentary deals a lot with the "quick, intense, and tough shoot" on a tight budget. He also points out some dramatic license to build tension. A question-and-answer session and an interview with Mark Logue, grandson of the speech therapist, reveal more about the preparation for the movie. There's also a public service announcement about the Stuttering Foundation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've seen TV ads for a PG-13 version of The King's Speech. I've only seen this version, but director Tom Hooper says the scenes in which Bertie says "shit" and "fuck" as part of a speech exercise were the sticking point with the ratings board that led to an "R" in the United States. I'd go with the R-rated DVD myself, since the movie is otherwise harmless and these are memorable scenes.
Viewers should also realize that the movie really is about speech therapy. It'll help to have at least a little awareness of the period, both in terms of the royal scandal and the looming war, to fill in the blanks.
The King's Speech may be a small film, but it will have a big impact on the way you think about the British monarchy and leaders in general. I'm even beginning to think that Queen Elizabeth's annual Christmas radio broadcast might be as interesting as Doctor Who's Christmas TV appearance. (Don't worry, Your Royal Highness, I won't be looking for signs of speech impediments.)
Not guilty. Thanks for letting this story out of the can.
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