Monday, October 31, 2011

Worth Watching: The King's Speech (2010)

Title: The King's Speech
Director: Tom Hooper
Language: English
Rating: R (because His Royal Highness doesn't stammer when he's cursing a blue streak)

The Duke of York (Colin Firth), known as "Bertie" to his family, is second in line to the throne after his older brother. Bertie prefers to stay out of the public eye; the few speeches required of him are disastrous on account of his stammer. At the arrangement of his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), he undergoes speech therapy with Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who demands great effort and openness from him. In spite of some progress, Bertie still stumbles during moments of nerves and high emotion. After his father, George V (Michael Gambon), dies and his brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), abdicates the throne, Bertie becomes King George VI. On the eve of WWII he's required to broadcast an important speech with a strength and eloquence he's convinced he'll never possess.

The King's Speech movie poster

Lionel Logue is passionate, wry, and just a little bit bonkers (in a manner unique to Geoffrey Rush). His character is also deepened by personal disappointments and struggles, such as his inability to start up a career as a Shakespearean actor.

Lionel Logue

From Colin Firth's Bertie you get a sense of a decent man who's fun to be around when he can relax, which isn't often. The few people who make him feel at ease are his wife and daughters (the elder of the two became Queen Elizabeth II in 1952). As his wife, Helena Bonham Carter is good at mixing upper-class restraint and properness with the sense of fun and play that she's brought to other very different movie roles.

I got a kick out of the fact that they made Winston Churchill a character, though I laughed too because I recognized the actor who plays him (Timothy Spall) from only one other role: Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films. He doesn't look sufficiently different from Peter here and doesn't have a large enough part to make himself a distinct character, so I kept thinking of him as an animagus politician. Another "cross-over" moment that briefly threw me out of the film was the scene where Lionel Logue's wife, Myrtle (Elizabeth Ehle), meets Bertie for the first time. Ehle starred as Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC's grand 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice, which also made Colin Firth famous as Mr. Darcy; it's probably still the role that Firth is most strongly associated with. So to have the two of them meet in a quiet room tipped the movie back into the Regency era for a few seconds, and I expected him to launch into a pompous marriage proposal. But then I was tilted right back to the 1930s, because Myrtle Logue treated the king with a nervous deference that Elizabeth Bennet would never have felt in the presence of Mr. Darcy.

Relationships and conflicts
Bertie and Lionel become friends, though it's a struggle, and they fight along the way. Bertie hates appearing vulnerable, and he's had to deal with so many quacks that it takes him time to trust someone; he's also conscious of the difference in station between him and Lionel, and it isn't easy for him to get used to Lionel's informality. Add to that the pressure of his public duties and the fact that he had thought, with great relief, that he'd never be king, and friction between the two men is inevitable. With the exception of his wife and daughters, Bertie tends to be reserved around everyone, in part as a defense mechanism against the mocking he's endured over his stuttering.

Bertie is sweet to his daughters and has a steady source of warm support and companionship from his wife, who consoles him, cheers him up, banters with him, and occasionally sits on him or stuffs things into his mouth. Firth and Bonham Carter play well off each other.

Bertie and Elizabeth

Memorable sights and sounds
Lionel runs Bertie through various exercises that lend themselves to interesting visuals (like Bertie rolling around on the floor) and sounds (vowels belted out with mixed dignity and silliness). At a few points in the movie, Bertie also speaks in song; if he couches his sentences in the melody of a familiar song, he stutters much less or not at all. This use of song sometimes has a comic effect but at other times is used to highlight a personal melancholy.

I also loved Bertie's expression as he hears himself deliver a soliloquy from Hamlet. Lionel had him record it while being drowned out by music so that he couldn't actually hear himself speak. Later on, after breaking off in disgust from Lionel Logue and his unconventional methods, Bertie listens to his own voice speaking steadily, and it's a wonderful moment of revelation. Shakespeare in general is woven nicely into the movie (including Lionel's audition for the part of Richard III).

Stand-out scenes
The King Edward's Chair scene. Bertie's confidence initially lapses, and it seems that he's going to give up again on working with Lionel. But after Lionel insolently drapes himself over King Edward's Chair, which is the throne used during a monarch's coronation, Bertie's anger at Lionel's presumption prompts him to eventually shout out that he has a voice! Bertie also shows himself to have a feeling and respect for tradition that contrasts with his older brother's depicted carelessness in abdicating the throne to be with Mrs. Wallis Simpson.

Another great scene is the climactic delivery of the speech on the eve of WWII ("In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history..."). The movie cuts back and forth between Bertie picking his way through it word by word, with Lionel standing opposite him, gesturing and coaching, and the king's large audience including various people in their homes, Bertie's family in the palace, and his older brother and Mrs. Simpson.

Further thoughts
Though the movie isn't a documentary and was made to show a man overcoming challenges to rise to the occasion, it still interests me to think about how the filmmakers played around with history and with the characters. For the sake of drama, the relationship between Lionel and Bertie was compressed to a shorter period of time, when in fact they had been working together since the 1920s; and who knows if they ever got to be this informal with one another by the end. I haven't read enough about the characters in general to venture a guess as to what they were like with each other. The movie also omits the whole issue of Neville Chamberlain and appeasement (along with George VI's public show of support for Chamberlain after the Munich Pact) and depicts Churchill and George VI as being friendly and supportive of one another from the very beginning. The filmmakers shape it so that everyone seems more or less united at the war's start, with George VI hoping that his speech impediment won't prevent him from being a resolute figurehead, a symbol of strength and resistance. And it's true that during the war, he and his wife appeared often in public, and visited various places in the UK and abroad, to boost morale.

Here's an actual recording of George VI, delivering the speech on September 3rd, 1939:

The text of the speech is here.

*All images link back to their source (Flixster community).