If someone put a gun to my head and said, “Give me one word to describe what The King’s Speech is about!” I’d be in quite a fix, for certainly it is about many things. It is about speech and fame. It is about public relations and politics. It is about the difficulties of having a life not totally your own and the hell that someone with a terrible stammer would go through. But I suppose that the word I’d pick in the end is ‘friendship’. Yes, if The King’s Speech is anything at all it is an anthem, an ode, a loud “hurrah” to friendship. The film presents us with a sad, timid, miserable character without a friend in the world except for his sweet, loving wife and the man who teaches him how to speak. All of this loneliness has left him a stutterer, afraid of his own shadow and afraid of the world. The character is of course King George VI (known as Bertie to his family) of the United Kingdom who was cursed with a dreadful stammer in his early days and failed to shake it off as he got older and inherited the crown. Tom Hooper’s tender movie is the story much in the style of Driving Miss Daisy about two human beings who don’t trust each other, don’t like each other, and get on each others nerves, yet through a series of both joyous and sorrowful events realize they need each other. The two people are King George (Colin Firth) and his unorthodox, demanding speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) who gave him a voice.
In the reconstruction days after World War I, the shy, timid Duke of York is terrified of public speaking mostly because of his dreadful stammer and speech impediment. He and his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) have seen nearly every credentialed speech therapist in the United Kingdom to no avail. Finally, almost at the moment of despair, Elizabeth makes a bold move and hires an unorthodox, rather churlish character called Lionel Logue who specializes in speech therapy. At first Bertie finds Logue’s antics and bizarre treatments and his constant prying into the Duke’s personal life to be a complete turn-off and an utter waste of time, but when his brother abdicates the throne, he finds that he needs Logue to help him, even if it means having to spill family secrets and hidden matters of his childhood. I think perhaps the greatest quality of the movie is its subtleness. In most films, characters change at a specific moment when they have an epiphany or a sudden revelation of truth, but what Tom Hooper has done is something much more difficult. He has created characters that change gradually and almost undetectably. These two characters, the King and the therapist, grow slowly closer to each other throughout the course of the film without once ever sharing with each other how they actually feel and it is not until the very end of the movie that they finally discover that they’re best friends. It’s a tender relationship held together by a mutual need for each other’s company. Bertie needs Lionel for speech therapy and Lionel needs Bertie to boost business. But eventually these selfish motives melt away and their relationship becomes one of the tenderest and most heart-warming friendships I’ve ever seen on screen. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush play off each other perfectly in Oscar worthy performances. Firth masters the stutter beautifully, much like Sissy Spacek did in 1999’s The Straight Story. Although it is hard to forget who is playing the two characters, the two actors are so lovable and perfectly cast that watching them interact with each other is pure joy to watch.
I don’t usually have a “favorite” scene in a movie, especially a movie as terrific as this. Most of the time in a movie I like this much, all the scenes blend together into one gangbuster package, yet one specifically magnificent scene stood out to me amid this myriad of magnificence. It is almost the final scene, when Bertie finally makes his first speech during war time over the radio. It’s an exhilarating scene to say the least that focuses on Bertie in front of that microphone, but the director has inserted reaction shots of the people listening. Shots of people from Elizabeth listening intently waiting to see if her husband will succeed, shots of the radio technicians praying and hoping that the King will do well, shots of workers in the street wondering if their King can finally pull it off. The scene is punctuated (to my delight and joy) not by newly composed music, but by Beethoven’s classic Symphony No. 7 in Allegretto which sets an exciting tone to the scene and makes it as pulse-pounding and suspenseful as any action movie chase scene. This is just one really terrific scene among many, many terrific scenes in this movie. It starts off pleasant enough and then just gets better and better and better with each progressing scene.
As the film continues, several mishaps and disappointments threaten to undo all of Lionel Logue’s work with Bertie, but always there to get Bertie back in the ball game is Elizabeth, forever supportive, always strong, and never hopeless. If the real guts of the movie lie with Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth, then the heart and soul of the film lies with Helena Bonham Carter who for once plays a sane character. She is of course Bertie’s wife and she provides him with the strength and emotional support to persevere through the ordeal. Even in the scenes in which she is not featured, her presence can be felt, mostly because of Bertie’s understated yet still obvious love for her. She is his cane to lean on, his rock to stand on, his breath of fresh air. Their relationship is as essential to the film (if not as central) as the main relationship twix Lionel and Bertie. Without Elizabeth, the King would never have even had the courage to contact Logue let alone continue taking lessons from him. I felt Helena Bonham Carter portrayed Elizabeth perfectly too. She doesn’t overact or really even play a character. Instead she plays a mood, a feeling, using her eyes and her tone of voice. It’s a small role, but key to the success of the movie. Tom Hooper’s direction doesn’t hurt either. He does not draw attention to his use of lighting or the motions of the camera even when creating some absolutely breathtaking and intriguing shots, especially one inside Westminster Abbey.
I thought The King’s Speech was an absolutely magnificent film worthy of acclaim. It’s a rare gem of modern cinema that combines several elements like colors, timing, lighting, mood, and most of all characterization to tell a wonderful and inspiring story of perseverance and chiefly friendship. The King’s Speech is an achievement by all involved, but especially by the actors. Colin Firth is so lovable and pitiful as the King that we can’t help but put ourselves into his shoes and feel his pain as well. And Geoffrey Rush delivers another wonderful performance in a long line of wonderful performances. I found this film to be enthralling in almost every sense of the word. It is a gripping drama of perseverance, an achievement for the filmmakers to be proud of, a delight to watch, and most of all a touching story about two souls who love and need each other.
The Weinstein Company presents a See-Saw Films production in association with Bedlam Productions and the Aegis Film Fund and the UK Film Counsel a film by Tom Hooper
Cast: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Claire Bloom, Timothy Spall, Derek Jacobi, Eve Best, Freya Wilson, Ramona Marquez, Jennifer Ehle. Directed by Tom Hooper
Rated R for some language. Release date: 26 November 2010