Silver Screen: The King's Speech ****
The true story of King Edward VIII and free-spirited American Wallis Simpson is almost too perfect for a romantic drama. Edward, who ascended to the throne following his father's death in the troubled years just before England entered World War II, was more interested in leisure than leadership and fell for an American divorcé e. The Church of England frowned-- its primary occupation-- on a member of the royal family marrying someone previously betrothed, and so to be with his Yankee love, Edward abdicated the throne.
The tale has been told again and again in numerous British films and BBC miniseries, and it's the subject of wannabe-Brit pop star/director Madonna's upcoming feature film, W.E.
Tom Hooper's wonderful film The King's Speech focuses not just on the less glamorous element of the changeover, notably the transfer of the throne to the far more circumspect and politically conscious brother King George VI, but on a very specific facet of the royal reshuffling-- namely, the future King George was profoundly affected by a stutter, which made it nearly impossible to make public presentations or even speeches for radio broadcast.
We meet the future king, known to his family as Bertie (Colin Firth), as he undergoes humiliating failure, first trembling before a microphone and shortly thereafter at the hands of yet another quack speech therapist. The verbal handicap has defined much of his life, and is a burden leavened only by his knowledge that his brother (Guy Pearce) will be expected to take over the monarchy following the death of their father (Michael Gambon). This has allowed Bertie not only a kind of peace with his secondary station in royal life, but also an excuse not to strive for greater achievements.
His supportive wife (Helena Bonham Carter) won't let him quit so easily, though, and seeks out eccentric speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). The quirky Australian employs unconventional methods that blend muscle exercises with memory associations and even a dash of psychotherapy. He insists that the royal progeny refer to him by his first name, and that he reciprocate in kind. Stripped of his authority in the confines of Lionel's office, Bertie is forced to have an equal interaction with a commoner for the first time in his life, and to see himself not as an inheritor of a mantle but as just a man.
It sounds, admittedly, kind of boring. As an American, it's hard not to regard the British monarchy with irreverence or even disdain, and the endless fascination some English folks find in fussing over the bloodlines and the pomp and ceremony is baffling.
But Hooper, working from an excellent screenplay by David Seidler (who also wrote the underrated Francis Ford Coppola film Tucker: A Man and His Dream), transcends the particulars and finds the broader themes in the material. The speech defect humanizes Bertie, and in doing so it makes more understandable his inner conflicts: the fear of disappointing his father, uncertainty in the face of great responsibility, and the clash between a lack of self confidence and a deeply ingrained sense of duty.
The primary conflict remains Bertie's speaking ability, but Hooper deftly and sparely sketches out the broader historical background on which the story plays out. The global implications of his brother's lust and his own handicap are contextualized without becoming lost in the sweep of history, and the more elaborate socio-political repercussions and complications are smartly inferred. (It's almost a throwaway line when someone notes that Hitler has taken to sending Wallis Simpson flowers every day, and that neither she nor her royal boyfriend much seem to mind.)
Firth and Rush make a phenomenal team, the former repressed but suggesting deep sensitivity beneath the prim faç ade, the latter overtaken with enthusiasm and curiosity. Rush's Lionel is a kind of oddball guru whose open-mindedness and deep sympathy borderline on the spiritual. Their relationship is unique and fascinating, a footnote in history every bit as interesting as the primary text.