The King’s Speech – a movie review

In poll after poll on personal phobias, public speaking consistently ranks higher than death. So many people would rather die than speak in public. How much greater would this fear be if you were royalty with a terrible stammer, expected to address the empire on the radio?

This is the situation facing the Duke of York, Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George (Bertie), second son of King George V, when his brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated the throne for the divorced woman with whom he was besotted,  Baltimore socialite Wallis Simpson. It is probably difficult for us at this distance to realize what a shocking development this was in a world so completely governed by the United Kingdom. To have the king and head of the Church of England leave the throne and his brother to take over, all the while with Hitler encroaching, must have been frightening indeed.

Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth (the Queen Mum who only passed away in 2002) searched for a speech therapist for her stammering husband, and they saw several (including one who insisted on the old Demosthenes method of speaking with marbles in your mouth) until they eventually found Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Ruth), a plain-speaking Australian. The relationship between Bertie and Lionel is the crux of the story.  A lot of time is given to the seemingly simple fact that Lionel insists that, during speech therapy, the men are equals and on a first name basis with each other (as opposed to calling Bertie “sir.”) Bertie’s disbelief at this notion is not simply a matter of believing himself superior to Lionel. It is more a matter that it just is not done, it is not expected, and he is a man who has rigidly adhered to what is expected of him for his entire life. Lionel is adamant, “My castle, my rules.”

Helena Bonham Carter, fresh from all but frothing at the mouth as Beatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, is all sweet gentility and iron spine as Bertie’s very supportive wife, and Geoffrey Rush shines as Lionel, a man confident enough to tell the king what to do while being intimidated by telling his wife about his new client.

But this movie belongs to Colin Firth, who plays Bertie impeccably with a mixture of fierce pride, self-deriding humor, and self consciousness. He is marvelous throughout, but three scenes are truly beautifully done. In the first, Bertie vulnerably confides how lonely he has been since childhood.The second is one in which a breakthrough of sorts is made when Lionel and Bertie realize, to great comic effect, that he doesn’t stammer when he swears. Of course, the third is the all-important radio address at the end. The paralyzing effect of the stammer is palpable, and his fear of letting down his role as king even more so. This is an Oscar worthy performance. Colin Firth is so much more than Mr. Darcy, and this movie proves it tenfold.

Mention must be given to the overall tone of the film. The subject may sound dry and serious, and obviously the movie is a drama, but there is a lot of humor in it, especially when Firth allows Bertie’s actual personality to shine through his royal persona.

reviewed by Heather Craig

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