Robert Frost defined poetry as “a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a love-sickness . . . where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words.”
Just as a poem can express an emotion or describe a relationship through a single snapshot, sometimes a person’s character can be summed up in a single experience. For King George VI (“Bertie,” as he was called by his family) that experience occurred in his determined effort to overcome a pronounced lifelong stammer. The King’s Speech is a wonderfully witty, brilliantly acted, and emotionally satisfying film that tells of the singular moment when an unorthodox speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) helped the king (Colin Firth) to find his voice, at a time when England — and the free world — desperately needed it.
One of the unexpected pleasures of this film is the opportunity to see the royal family in their living rooms, so to speak, when they were young and not expecting to become king or queen. A rumble of recognition is heard in the theater, for example, as viewers realize with a start that Helena Bonham Carter’s character is the young Queen Mum, already demonstrating her twinkling smile and munching on the marshmallows that would eventually lead to her familiar round torso. “That’s Queen Elizabeth!” at least one viewer gasped as the young princess, Elizabeth (Freya Wilson) is seen romping in pink pajamas with her little sister Margaret (Ramona Marquez) as they listen eagerly to a bedtime story told by their father, the man who did not expect to be king.
It is also unexpectedly intimate to see the debonair playboy Prince of Wales cum King Edward VIII cum Duke of Windsor (Guy Pearce), bursting into tears and sobbing on the shoulder of his mother, Queen Mary (Claire Bloom), at the death of his father George V (Michael Gambon) — sobbing not because his father has died but because of what it will mean to his relationship with the twice (and still) married Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). He would remain king for less than a year, not even enough time for his official coronation, induced to abdicate because of the relationship with Mrs. Simpson and because of his general incompetence.
George VI was a great example of courage, confidence, and commitment during World War II, not only in his speeches but also in his actions.
As the film opens, Bertie, the timid younger son of a domineering father, attempts to stammer his way through a radio speech under the disapproving eye of King George V, whose Christmas radio speeches were as important to his people’s sense of good will as Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats became in America. The film suggests that George V’s raging disapproval and faultfinding may have contributed to Bertie’s stammer.
Sitting behind him and stoically willing him to succeed, his wife Elizabeth (Bonham Carter) exudes tender disappointment when he fails. She is not embarrassed by him; she hurts for him. Several royal doctors try to cure Bertie of his awkward and unregal stammer, but to no avail. In one particularly ironic scene, a doctor urges him to smoke cigarettes frequently because it will “relax” his vocal cords. (Sadly, George VI would die of lung cancer and arteriosclerosis at the age of 56.) Eventually Elizabeth finds an unconventional therapist, Lionel Logue (Rush), who changes Bertie’s life by restoring his voice, and by becoming his lifelong friend.
The film is a delightful mixture of royal protocol and unexpected earthiness. Logue refuses to treat the Duke of York any differently from the way in which he treats his other clients, even insisting that they use first names. Their banter is droll and often hilarious. When Myrtle Logue (Jennifer Ehle), who is unaware of her husband’s famous client, comes home a bit early to find the king and queen of England standing in her parlor, she asks querulously, “Will their Majesties be staying for dinner?” Elizabeth, knowing it would be inappropriate for them to stay, responds charmingly, “We would love to. Such a treat! But alas . . . a previous engagement. What a pity.” No wonder everyone loved the Queen Mum!
The King’s Speech is a tour de force for Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, two masters of the king’s English, who spar and vie for dominance in each scene. But despite the humor there is an underlying seriousness to Bertie’s effort to overcome his impediment, especially when his struggles are set against the backdrop of his older brother’s abdication and the run-up to World War II. One of the most brilliant scenes in the film is King George VI’s 1939 Christmas speech to the British people, on the eve of the war with Germany. The speech is familiar to anyone who has studied that period of history. It has always seemed emotionally charged and solemn because of its halting delivery. Learning that this delivery was the result of a speech impediment does not lessen its gravity. Instead, it increases it, as it demonstrates the king’s strength and courage at a time when the British people would be called upon to demonstrate strength and courage of their own. Logue literally conducts the king in his delivery of the speech in the way a maestro would conduct an orchestra, virtually transforming it into a lyric, set to the solemn strains of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which fills the theater throughout the scene.
George VI was a great example of courage, confidence, and commitment during World War II, not only in his speeches but also in his actions. When Buckingham Palace was bombed and his advisors urged him to move his family to the safety of Canada for the duration of the war, the king refused, joining Londoners in underground air raid shelters. While his people sent their children to the safety of the English countryside, the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret stayed in town.
Meanwhile, the abdicated Edward VIII and his beloved Wallis Warfield Simpson led an unhappy life. Suspected of German sympathies, they met with Hitler before the war, and he was finally sent by Churchill to govern the Bahamas, mainly to keep him out of the way. Hitler himself was quoted as saying, "I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us." One has to wonder where England might have stood during World War II — and what Europe would be like today — if Wallis Simpson hadn’t stolen Edward’s heart and caused him to give up the throne.