Lionel Logue: "Why should I waste my time listening to you?"
King George VI: "Because I have a voice!"
Lionel Logue: "....yes, you do."
The Oscars are once more upon us (a blog or two about that will follow in coming days), and the smart money is on The King's Speech. The historical drama starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter leads the nominees, with nods for all three leads, Best Picture, Best Director (Tom Hooper), Cinematography, Screenplay, and Score. The film has not only been a critical hit, but has also resonated with worldwide audiences.
I first saw the film in December after its release, and found it a powerful, moving telling of the story of King George VI (Firth) and his struggle to overcome the speech impediment of stuttering during the lead-up to World War Two. I saw it again, and decided it was time to give it a proper review.
The film opens with Prince Albert, the future king, stumbling badly during a speech at Wembley Stadium in 1925, a moment which is a personal humiliation for him. During the years that follow, he tries various treatments to overcome his stuttering, but to no avail. We see the reasons for it. There's a strict father, King George V (Michael Gambon). Childhood issues such as repressive nannies, death in the family, and physical issues are all brought up. There's the complex relationship with a favoured brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), always the preferred son, and really, something of a vain, self absorbed prat. There, I said it. The guy was a self absorbed prat. And a Nazi sympathizer. It's not like I'll get tossed in the Tower of London for saying that, right?
Getting back to it....
Albert's devoted wife Elizabeth (Carter) encourages him to try one more option, an Australian named Lionel Logue (Rush), living in London. Logue is somewhat unorthodox, to say the least. As time unfolds, his treatments range from breathing exercises to recordings to (in a very memorable scene) coaxing the King into cursing. Logue also probes for the causes behind the stuttering.
With the death of their father, Edward ascends to the throne, only to abdicate for love of Wallis Simpson (though his sympathies to Nazi Germany might have more to do with it). Albert becomes George VI, ascending to a role he was never meant to inhabit, in an age where he is expected to speak. Centuries ago, it would have been enough for a king to appear, to wave, and remain quiet had he wished. Not so much in an age of mass communication. And so, in the years that follow, the King and Logue work together, their relationship sometimes tense and growling, to overcome the stutter and to build confidence. In their own way, the two men become friends.
With the coming war, the King must prepare for an address to rally the nation to the cause against Nazi Germany. Logue coaches him, helping him to deliver what will become the most important address of his life. For the rest of their lives, the two men remain close (the King knights Logue, not too bad for an Aussie), and Logue remains a calming, trusted presence in the Royal household.
The film is outstanding, and the actors are well cast. Firth brings an extraordinary dignity and strength to the role of King George, mixed with a genuine feeling of frustration that the man himself must have felt at his vocal impediment. I've seen that Firth tends to gather a lot of female admirers, a likely result of first seeing him in Pride and Prejudice, where he played the iconic role of Darcy. For my part, the first impression I had of Firth is from Shakespeare In Love, where he plays the complete bastard. It's an impression that still resonates with me, but Firth's always a fine actor, and really inhabits this role well. He makes us feel empathy for the King, to understand. It's a marvel to behold.
Rush gives Logue just the right touch of irreverence and respect. As an actor who's run the gauntlet from films like Pirates of the Caribbean to Les Miserables to Munich to The Tailor of Panama, he's got an eclectic resume, and he plays this part with quiet wisdom, occasional quips, and effortless grace. He comes away with some of the best lines in the film.
Helena Bonham Carter has long been one of my favourite actresses. From playing Olivia in Twelfth Night to voice work in Corpse Bride to her deranged Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter films, she's impeccable, professional, and expressive, a natural talent before the cameras. She lends great warmth and strength to the role of the Queen, a rock of support for her husband. If history rightfully remembers George VI as a good and indeed a great king, Elizabeth had a lot to do with it, and Carter brings off the role perfectly.
Add to that fine performances from the always strong Gambon, Pearce (one of the underrated great actors), and Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill (Kendall Protocol #56: any actor playing Churchill is obliged to chew the scenery). Mix in excellent direction, cinematography, music, costume and set work (all those nominations are there for a reason, you know) and it's a combination that deserves the inevitable Oscars it's going to get.
This is a film that captures the sweep of history and the times, while simultaneously working as a character study. It examines two different relationships: a deeply personal examination of an unlikely friendship between two men from very different worlds, and a marriage between a man and woman who were perfectly suited for each other. It's an exceptional, extraordinary film that everyone should see.
I still rate 127 Hours as the best film of the year, though this one's a worthy second. And with momentum on the side of The King's Speech, it's going to collect a lot of hardware at the Oscars.
Five minutes after posting this review, the writer was arrested by the British for insulting King Edward VIII and hauled off to the Tower of London for fifty years, for regular floggings administered by this man.