I finally got to see The King's Speech since it at long last opened in a local theater. And oh, let me tell you, it was worth the wait. The King's Speech is every bit as extraordinary, moving, and gripping as all of the rave reviews have claimed. It's an intimate, personal story set against the most epic of backdrops - the onset of World War II. For a reluctant leader the stakes couldn't be higher - yet the most ordinary thing imaginable, speaking, eludes him at every turn. In an increasingly media-centered world, a sovereign's image is no longer formed by simple photographs, now his words carry weight and have the capability of rallying people to his side or leaving them cowering in fear. For a man with a crippling stammer, the problem seems overwhelming. Yet with the help of Lionel Logue, a highly unconventional speech therapist, George VI found his voice.
My knowledge of Elizabeth II's father, George VI, was pretty sparse all things considered - limited to history books or the character's occasional appearance in a war-era film. Several years ago I remember enjoying the Masterpiece production Bertie and Elizabeth, where Bertie a.k.a. George VI was played by James Wilby. I have no recollection of that film addressing George's speech impediment, so The King's Speech was quite eye-opening as it raises George's story to a whole new level of inspiring. For a man who was born as the "spare heir" to older brother Edward, dealing with a crippling stammer would have been bad enough, but at least he didn't have the added pressure being the heir would bring. But all of that changed when Edward decided if he couldn't have the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson he wanted nothing to do with the throne, and suddenly Bertie and his stammer were thrust into a most unwelcome spotlight.
I so hope The King's Speech receives the Oscar nominations I think it so richly deserves when awards season arrives. Performances aside, on a purely artistic level it's an exquisitely, beautifully made film. The attention to period detail, from every stitch of the costumes to each prop in Logue's office is a delight to the eyes. The script is just brilliant, by turns hilarious and heart-wrenching. And the structure of the film is superb, each scene carefully placed, raising the stakes for the characters and leaving you on the edge of your seat, breathless with anticipation to see how George will rise above his stammer and his fear to embrace the role of leader.
As Bertie/George VI, Colin Firth's performance is an absolute revelation. For my money this is the performance of his career. I left the theater absolutely exhausted from the emotional investment I felt when watching Bertie. The painful effort with which Firth shows how hard it was for Bertie to articulate his thoughts and feelings left me completely wrung out as a viewer. Prior to seeing this film, I never, ever would have imagined that watching a film where a central plot device, if you will, is a speech impediment could be so gripping or get me as emotionally involved as it did. But when you have a sympathetic, engaging character - all the more compelling because he was real - and a tour-de-force performance from a great actor pouring his heart and soul into the role, you can't help but be moved. It might be easy going into The King's Speech to think of it as "simply" a historic biopic, but it's so much more than that - it's about overcoming physical impediments and even more than that, I'd say it's about overcoming fear - and who hasn't been attacked by that monster?
Geoffrey Rush's turn as Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue is equally brilliant. He and Firth play off each other brilliantly, bringing Bertie and Lionel's unorthodox friendship to vibrant life. Logue must've been a fascinating guy. He apparently loved Shakespeare (a fact I really appreciated *g*), and dreamed of finding success on the amateur stage, which sadly for him never happened. He also apparently had no formal training as a speech therapist - all of his therapies and expertise were based on his hands-on experience with shell-shocked World War I veterans in Australia - clearly the guy was a brilliant maverick, if you will. The social constraints Logue had to push through in order to gain Bertie's trust, and get to the root of his stammer, made for fascinating viewing. Not only did Logue have his unorthodox methods and "commoner" status working against him, but he was Australian, and that class distinction created problems and prejudices I never could've imagined. Lionel and Bertie form a friendship that grows to transcend class, but in order to get to that point the two of them go through an unbelievable refining fire that tests each man's resolve to the near breaking point.
I was incredibly impressed with Helena Bonham Carter's regal, gracious turn as Bertie's wife Elizabeth. I can remember how "The Queen Mother" seemed to be pretty universally beloved right up to her death at the age of 101 in 2002. But again, I didn't really know much about her earlier life as an unexpected Queen, and I never suspected the pivotal role she played in supporting her husband and seeking treatment options for his debilitating stutter. One has this rather vague idea that Elizabeth II's mother must've been a force to be reckoned with to stand up to the London Blitz and then serve as family matriarch through the turbulent personal years the royals have seen just in my lifetime. But I have so much more respect for her now, after having seen this movie. If Elizabeth and Bertie's marriage was half as supportive as this film portrays it, I'd still be blown away by their relationship. It's been ages since I've seen Carter play such a restrained (i.e. not crazy) role, and does it here beautifully. Keeping my fingers crossed for a supporting actress Oscar nod.
There are several other notable cast members that I'd like to quickly point out. The first and perhaps most notable to me as a Jane Austen fan is Jennifer Ehle, playing Myrtle Logue, Lionel's wife. Ehle, of course, appeared opposite Colin Firth as Elizabeth Bennet in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. In the film, Lionel keeps his consulations with Bertie a secret from his wife - when the accidental "reveal" occurs, Rush is absolutely hilarious playing the flustered spouse. And when Myrtle looks in shock at the king-to-be and asks where she's seen him before, well the P&P fan in me really enjoyed that moment. A third P&P alum makes a brief appearance as well. David Bamber, who so memorably portrayed Mr. Collins, appears briefly as a Theatre Director who squashes Lionel's hopeful Shakespeare audition. Derek Jacobi, who has appeared in everything from Doctor Who to Masterpiece productions, makes an annoying, ingratiating Archbishop of Cantebury. And I absolutely loved seeing Anthony Andrews on-screen again, even if he did only play P.M. Stanley Baldwin. The Andrews/Seymour Scarlet Pimpernel is definitely worth checking out if you've never seen it. Timothy Spall makes a fairly good Winston Churchill - he had the voice and mannerisms down pretty well, but looks-wise there have been better film Churchills IMO.
Bertie's parents are played by a regal Claire Bloom and Michael Gambon (goodness the man seems like he's in everything nowadays!). The parent/child dynamic in this film is fascinating and heart-breaking to see here. Not only do you have the whole traditional British "stiff upper lip" thing going on, but lack of understanding of what caused Bertie's stammer and how best to deal with it also fostered tension in the royal father/son relationship. During one heart-breaking scene, the first time Bertie really opens up to Lionel, occurs immediately after his father's death. He shares details of physical abuse at the hands of a nanny who preferred his brother to what would be termed emotional abuse/neglect today from his parents. Or perhaps I should clarify - I think the film was trying to drive home the idea that because of his disability, the people who most could've helped him instead made the situation worse due to lack of understanding and the position they were expected to uphold. When you see Colin Firth on-screen as a man only a breath away from the throne, who only wanted his father's approval - which was only given on his deathbed, and then not to him personally - I defy you to not want to bawl. In fact, you might when you witness Bloom's silent approval of her second son's first wartime speech. :)
The brothers dynamic is also incredibly complex and fascinating. Edward is played by Guy Pearce, and can I just tell you while Pearce certainly looked the part it was bizarre to see him in the role. In the film, because of his status as the heir or his devil-may-care personality - or perhaps a combination of the two - Edward is the golden favored one. Favored, that is, until his affairs with married women like Wallis Simpson start to cause PR problems for the royal family. Compared to Bertie, Edward comes across as a spoiled, petulant child - no pun intended, but all that glitters clearly isn't gold. And good grief, I don't care what "skills" Wallis Simpson may have learned from "an establishment" in Shanghai (when Carter makes this assertion in the movie it's a priceless put-down!), but seriously?! In this film portrayal, anyway, she was so not worth it.
I know this is really long, but just a few more thoughts I really want to try and verbalize. I think this movie's appeal is quite universal, and that's due to too things. This is most definitely not a "stuttering" movie, though it will make you think about the difficulties of coping with that in a whole new, and more informed, light. But more than that it's a story of how do you cope when your life changes in a flash, and how do you face your worst fears. The thought that the heir would abdicate was not even a blip on anyone's radar during Bertie's growing-up years. Sure, he was second in line to the throne until Edward had a child, but he was only the "spare heir," emphasis on spare. Not only did Bertie have to radically change his plans and view of his life, but so did his wife. One of my favorite scenes occurs shortly before Bertie's coronation as George VI, when he breaks down sobbing about never wanting, not being worthy to be king. Elizabeth reminds him that he had to propose to her three times before she'd accept, because she wasn't sure she wanted life in the public eye - but she thought he "stammered so beautifully" she couldn't say no. Not only is that an incredible illustration of love, but think about it - being a wartime queen was certainly more than she bargained for when she married the younger prince.
Very early in The King's Speech, Bertie's daughters Elizabeth and Margaret request a bedtime story from their father. The herculean effort and bravery it took to complete such a "simple" everyday task just broke my heart. But he did it. And the love for his children that allowed him to tell that story is a foreshadowing of the love and extraordinary friendship that equips Bertie, the man who never wanted to be king, to be the leader and voice of a nation in its darkest hour. The speech - the king's first during the war - that caps this film is a nail-biter. The filmmakers and actors really given you a feel for what it must have been like to live during that time, literally hanging on every word spilling from your radio. That reminds me - Alexandre Desplat's score for this movie is gorgeous. But during that final speech, Beethoven Symphony No. 7 - II plays, and it's an absolute genius musical selection. The look Logue and the king exchange after the speech, saying so much without words is a fantastic moment, so well-played by Firth and Rush - they are quite the on-screen pairing in this movie.
This is one of those movies that I'll be thinking about for a long time to come. It's a powerful portrait of the life-changing gift of friendship, and a moving reminder, for me anyway, of faith in the face of fear. The next time you think about how far God's brought you through whatever your valley may be, I challenge you to take an extra moment to thank him for the people He may have placed in your life to help you through your valley. That's just one of the gifts The King's Speech left me. For as long as this post is, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of the beauty and brilliance in this film. I highly recommend making the time to see it if and when it finally appears in a theater near you.* This movie definitely ranks as a highlight of the year.
*Just a note on the R rating - that's for two scenes of swearing. The swearing is part of Bertie's therapy. For all the swearing in those two scenes - a good chunk of which is a bit hard to understand - I still don't get how that warranted a R rating. Just so you know. :)