Though they may not be as widely admired as in days gone by, the enduring global fascination with the British monarchy manifests itself most clearly today in the number of popular films released of which they or their ancestors are the subjects. In recent years there has been Stephen Frears’ The Queen, Jean-Marc Vallée’s The Young Victoria, Justin Chadwick’s The Other Boleyn Girl, or the Cate Blanchett-starring dramas loosely based on the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Most of these are fairly decent films in their own right, but veer too often for my tastes into awe-struck obsessing over the minutiae of the mannered otherworldliness of Royal life while seeming convinced that presenting the idea that being a monarch might be rather difficult is somehow revolutionary new ground to tread, despite every other film having exactly the same ideas.
The King’s Speech
Director: Tom Hooper
Country: United Kingdom
So you get the plinky piano soundtrack and over-dramatisation of events which, while important, were more part of history’s slow-burning cycle of change than the sudden upheavals the writers and directors like to imagine. The Young Victoria, for example, is engaging enough but doesn’t hold back on tweaking history to suit its dramatic purposes. Anyone with a vague knowledge of history and having seen a few of these types of films will be able to easily spot such tweaks, which are often enough to shatter belief in the integrity of the film’s world. It was for those reasons that I decided against going to see The King’s Speech at the London Film Festival last year, a decision I now have to admit was entirely mistaken.
That’s not to say the film does none of those things: there are at least two instances when David Seidler’s script quite obviously throws in a dramatic twist for the sake of it and they’re by far the film’s most jarring moments. Although often very funny – the now infamous swearing scene will get one of the biggest laughs and shows up the ridiculousness of the MPAA’s decision to give it an ‘R’ rating in the US – there are occasional slips into slightly contrived campness (King George V’s lament on how radio broadcast is turning the monarchy into actors, the lowest of the low) which will not be appreciated by all. But just as Emily Blunt’s beautiful performance held Young Victoria together, The King’s Speech is elevated by its two enormously moving and complementary central performances.
Colin Firth is a revelation as Albert, the future King George V, who struggles against a debilitating stammer that undermines him at every turn while his brother David, the authentically repugnant and now disgraced King Edward VIII, threatens to drag the monarchy down with him in his determination to marry the twice-married American socialite Wallis Simpson. Firth is usually an agreeable presence on-screen, but has never seemed to me a substantial one. The image of Darcy walking across the lawn in a soaking shirt was always an image that summed him up perfectly: charismatic, but not ultimately much more than eye candy for middle-aged female viewers.
By the end of his first scene in King’s Speech, that impression had been completely dispelled. A stammer could be an easy affliction to overplay for Oscar bait, but there’s real strain and agony behind his eyes as he sees a nation looking to him for a symbol of strength and integrity, yet despite his best efforts is incapable of forcing out even a short speech to open an exhibition. Albert’s belief in the importance of Royal presentation and manners is what gives him a fierce determination to be a man to make his people proud, but also revealed as the source of what is blocking him from fulfilling that potential. Firth puts this contradiction at the heart of every scene, whether pushing himself to tell his beloved daughters a bedtime story even if it kills him, or angrily resisting therapist Lionel Logue’s attempts to discover the psychological source of his impediment.
Geoffrey Rush’s outstanding work as Logue is not so much of a surprise as he is a greatly underrated actor, but his impact is no less powerful. Logue is torn between a deep respect for the man he is trying to cure and his struggle to find a balance between pushing Albert to reveal himself and not overstepping his mark, which Logue’s humble background makes a challenge. He is a humble man of integrity, who has quietly dedicated his life to helping others find their voice after his own aspirations to be a stage actor went unfulfilled. Rush embodies Logue’s dignity to endearing and touching effect. His gentle smile when Albert finally acknowledges at the coronation rehearsal how much he appreciates the effort that has gone into helping him is a simple but beautifully played moment that says more than a hundred pages of dialogue ever could. Both Logue and Albert are of much the same soul, but face challenges from having roots in very different corners of society. Rush and Firth find their characters’ common ground and use it to build a trust between them that is never less than authentic and always fulfilling to watch grow.
Firth and Rush’s performances so perfectly express their characters’ unspoken affection for one another that the film’s other stumbles – Hooper’s occasionally obvious direction, the aforementioned moments of intrusive over-dramatisation, Helena Bonham-Carter’s one-dimensional role as Albert’s wife Elizabeth – are easily forgotten. As a representation of the monarchy, it works because it presents that side of its story as nothing more than character notes, with Logue’s family and background given just as much importance to the drama. When Albert finally has to deliver the radio broadcast that sums up the second of the title’s two meanings, there is no doubt that he is pushing himself on as much for the man who got him there as for himself and his subjects.
The film shares a great deal in common with boxing movies, where the underdog fighter finds an unlikely trainer to bring out the best in him and defeat a seemingly insurmountable opponent. If this were Rocky, it would be the moment the cinema audience would cheer their champion on, except that in this regal company it is made clear how inappropriate and un-English that would be. Instead, sit upright and silently pray for their success.
The King’s Speech is a rare film which understands both the strengths and pitfalls of the British class system, portraying through two exceptional performances how it can help people from all backgrounds better understand and inspire each other as much as it needs to be constantly evolving. But this is not a story of a commoner showing a monarch how to be a better man, as would have been the easy and hackneyed way of presenting it. It is not really even a story about monarchy or history or nationalism, but how having someone to confide in can be enough to give strength to the voices that go on to inspire millions to achieving the greatest things. Majestic.