Many children are burdened with some disposition that makes them stand out so noticeably from the rest. Some of us know what it felt like to be that child trying to maneuver through school hallways and classrooms without having attention called to something like a face of acne; short stature; a bad hair day; excessive shyness and so on. Imagine the awkward obstacles set before a child that stutters when he speaks… Now imagine a King of Britain facing the same problem.
David Seidler (writer) suffered through childhood with a stutter (also called a stammer) and, later in adult life, was inspired by the story of King George VI’s own challenges with the same impediment. Seidler had asked permission from Queen Elizabeth (wife of the then late King) to share this story in the form of a film. Citing that the memories of that period in their lives were too painful, she asked that such a film not be produced in her lifetime – Seidler respected her wishes.
The King’s Speech opens on a well-dressed married couple hesitantly waiting in a stairwell of some kind, with the sounds of a roaring crowd echoing throughout. Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the Duke of York is comforted by his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), the Duchess of York before attempting his doomed closing speech of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium in 1925. Doomed; because Albert suffers from a terrible stammer that has rendered him fearful of public speaking… and possibly even more fearful of the latest in technology – the microphone. Desperate to find help for her husband, whom she refers to a ‘Bertie’, the Duchess seeks out the assistance of every unorthodox style in speech therapy, eventually resulting in a partnership with a rather intriguing Shakespeare enthusiast, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian who assisted shell-shocked soldiers after the first World War regain their use of speech. At first, Prince Albert is reluctant to cooperate with any attempts to address possible psychological factors that may have triggered the stammer, insisting instead that the therapy focus on the physiological – muscle relaxation, throat and vocal exercises, etc.
The story progresses over several years through the death of Albert’s over-bearing father, King George V (Michael Gambon) and the controversial abdication from the thrown by his brother, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce). Edward’s insisting on marriage with an American socialite and twice divorcée would eventually result in Albert’s ascension to the thrown as King George VI. During this span of time, the friendship between the King and Lionel is tested, past secrets and painful memories are revealed, and concerns of Hitler’s ultimate plans for Europe add to an unavoidable tension. Through these trials, the two protagonists learn plenty about each other and themselves, eventually coming to a climactic speech that the King must broadcast to the people of England regarding his stance on the country’s involvement in what will become the second World War… with his friend Lionel, one of few permitted to address him by first name, at his side.
An unforgiving look into the more modern times of Royal life, The King’s Speech is a touching and witty interpretation of actual events. Understandably, there are some artistic liberties taken for the sake of conveying the story in a way that will connect with the audience. The plot flows effortlessly through more than a decade of historical events, family feud and friendships. All actors do an amazing job of brining these characters to life in a way that make you truly care about them and their challenges. Though she has no stammer, the stresses and responsibilities put upon Queen Elizabeth in the constant supporting of her husband were portrayed beautifully by Bonham Carter. And despite his confidence when dealing with the King’s impediment, Lionel’s own struggles as a hopeful Shakespearean actor are easily understood in the pained eyes of Geoffrey Rush. And of course, Colin Firth took on a huge weight with the reworking of his speech to convey the confined and reluctant nature of his character, the late King George VI. The entire cast brought something unique and beautiful to all characters and their often awkward, overly-formal, hesitant and loving interactions.
Mostly dialogue-driven, the soft-spoken use of wit and body language was essential. There are only a few moments where voices are raised – usually when Albert gives in to his temper and lashes out… which leads to a hilarious spouting of every curse word he can muster within one minute.
The art direction and costuming were impeccable… but the photography truly stood out as the major factor that made the telling of this story unforgettable. (As a photographer, I may be a bit biased). The unusual framing of characters at far ends of the frame gave an awkward sense of constriction and uneasiness; the use of doorways seem to imply the separate areas within the human psyche; the claustrophobic, close-range photography used to portray the broadcasting over radio as monstrously horrifying, etc. Every shot was planned and executed beautifully.