What will win The King’s Speech awards this Golden Globes and Oscar season is not the acting or direction, though they will certainly help. The film’s true strength is its storyline, a timeless tale of unlikely friendship and triumph over personal obstacles.
The film begins as the Duke of York, a.k.a. Prince Albert a.k.a. the future King George VI and hereforth referred to as “Duke” (Colin Firth)… *ahem*… chokes on a royal address he is to make. British director Tom Hooper ensures we feel exactly as the Duke does as he stands in front of a crowd of thousands, lacking the confidence to enunciate words. It is rather immediate then that we are met with the Duke’s achilles’ heel and regard him as a sympathetic character of the highest order; he is, after all, a member of the royal family with a speech impediment.
The Duke’s elder brother Edward is next in line to take the throne, and this initially offers the Duke some peace of mind as his fear of speech will not have to be beaten. But Edward is promiscuous and travel-crazed and eventually bows out, leaving the Duke to step up.
With the support of his wife (the ghastly pale Helena Bonham Carter), the Duke exhausts nearly every route to improve his speaking – one physician misguidedly prescribes him cigarettes and hot marbles – until finally they enlist the help of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) who is confident in his ability to improve the Duke’s speech. After an initial consultation, the Duke feels that Logue’s unorthodox remedial techniques will lead to nowhere but embarrassment, but after hearing a recording of his voice unrestrained, he is convinced: Logue may have something after all.
And indeed he does. Lionel allows the Duke (whom he insists on calling “Bertie” to facilitate comfort) to unwind from his regal preoccupations. He leads him to curse freely, do bizarre exercises and sing in metre openly in the privacy of his office. But most importantly, he becomes a friend to Bertie, someone who sees him as a man capable of great achievement and seeks to unleash his inner potential. Bertie’s stiffness finally disintegrates as he learns to embrace any behaviour previously deemed unfit for the royal family. By way of his new confidant, he realizes that the true quality of a king is not meekly following the footsteps of his forebears, but bridging gaps between others and being open to change.
The direction is impeccable. Much of the camerawork is the “follow-behind” style popularized by NBC’s “The West Wing,” which is effective in scenes where the Duke is greeting fellow royalty or politicos (Churchill makes a cheery cameo) or the sweeping crowds of the English public. The close-ups of the Duke are perfect to convey his suppressed angst.
The acting all around is terrific; Rush shines as Lionel Logue, showing such genial strength of character that he brings warmth to every scene. Firth also portrays the future King George VI with brilliance. His stammer is utterly convincing and his eyes bespeak the emotional weight of feeling an embarrassment to his family and the public he must come to represent. The connection between these two characters is a fine one; the dialogue between them sharp and engaging.
The film’s refinement is lightened with several comic touches, especially when we witness the Duke playfully coming to terms with his humanity. This lightens the conflict between them, a conflict of class differences and differing nationalities. This divide between nobleman and commoner is most pronounced when Lionel’s credentials are questioned. Later, the Duke lambastes him when he drives a little too close to home when questioning his motives for dispelling the idea of kingship. “I have a voice!” Bertie exclaims in one of the film’s most moving scenes. To which Logue coolly replies, “Yes, you do.”
The final impression is that regardless of race or social class, that goes for us all.