The King’s Speech opens in 1924 with a speech that does not quite happen. It closes in 1939, with another speech, which does.
In the intervening fifteen years, the story of the Duke of York’s stammer (from which he suffered from the age of five,) and its eventual cure, unfolds.
We follow The Duke of York, Albert (‘Bertie’), later King George VI (played impressively by Colin Firth), as he battles with an affliction that is exacerbated by anxiety and by speaking in public, a function integral to the job description of a monarch.
We first see his struggle as he attempts to address the crowd, and the nation, as the speech is delivered live via the recent phenomenon of radio, at the close of the empire exhibition, Wembley Stadium, 1924. The anxiety is palpable as we observe the public tensely wait for Bertie’s words. Silence has rarely been so powerful.
We first see his struggle as he attempts to address the crowd and nation, through the recent phenomenon of radio, at the close of the empire exhibition at Wembley Stadium in 1924. The anxiety is palpable as we observe the public wait tensely for Bertie’s words. Cinematic silence has rarely been so potent.
The film skips forward to 1934, Bertie’s wife, the Duchess of York (Helena Bonham Carter, the assertive half of the royal partnership), following many failed orthodox attempts to cure the stammer, takes command of the situation and seeks out the help of a Harley Street ‘speech therapist’ (who has no formal qualifications, as we later discover). Reluctantly, begrudgingly Bertie engages with the alternative, challenging, amusing Lionel Logue. Logue is played, marvellously, by Geoffrey Rush, a beguiling and engaging antidote to all things royal and untouchable. Bertie meanwhile, is likeable, hischaracter’s vulnerability and suffering played with skill and empathy by Firth.
Logue’s unorthodox methods work, although he struggles to engage Bertie in a more psychoanalytical approach to getting to the root of the problem. When Bertie, spurred to action by his brother’s abdication, eventually talks more about his childhood, particularly the effects of bullying following the onset of his the stammer – we learn little about the ‘why’ of his affliction), the relationship moves in a quasi-friendship, quasi-psychotherapeutic direction. Freudian psycho-speak grates at times.
Most intriguing of all is the profound impact of the monarch’s words (and silences) onhis British subjects of the time. The archbishop of Canterbury, (Derek Jacobi), and arch enemy of Logue, equates the arrival of the wireless with the opening of Pandora’s box. Similarly, the film serves to open the box in question, raising questions that it does not, or cannot, answer. Logue’s role is particularly interesting, with his alternative methods, his determination to dig beneath the surface, but in the end, despite the success of the treatment, his place in society remains clearly demarcated. In the final scene, as Bertie enjoys the aftermath of success, Logue hangs back, knowing his place. He is a commoner after all, and the film starkly and repeatedly contrasts his world with that of the royal family.
This very British, and very royal, period film is a delight to watch. The screen is studded with stars, including Timothy Spall, Anthony Andrews, Michael Gambon, Guy Pearce. A very British affair, the success of which is to be welcomed and applauded. The credibility of Firth’s acting has been reinforced by the praise he has received from those who suffer from the affliction. Stammering can be the most hidden of disabilities and remains common, its victims frequently subjected to social alienation and bullying. The King’s Speech deals with the issue sensitively and compassionately. At no point is the affliction depicted as something to laugh at.
Yes, this is a film about the suffering associated with stammering. But also, and perhaps more importantly, it is about a royal stammer, each interworking aspect inseparable from the other.
Facebook is awash with confessions by grown men that the speech delivered by the King on the eve of World War II, reduced them to tears. The moment, the climax of the film to which we have been guided from the outset, is certainly an emotionally loaded one, and yes, I was rooting, dry-eyed, for Logue.
There is much to ponder on, and to question. The film is currently being screened in cinemas, and tipped for Oscars, at the beginning of 2011, a year which promises a real-life royal wedding. The success of the TV drama Downton Abbey is evidence of society’s persisting absorption with period British drama. The success of The King’s Speech, itself an absorbing and enjoyable drama (which includes our current monarch) raises many interesting, and perhaps uncomfortable, questions about Britain, Royalty, and Republicanism.