If royalty is good for nothing else, it’s certainly good for making films. The King’s Speech is no exception and cements Colin Firth’s reputation as one of Britain’s best actors but more than that, it’s is a superbly written historical tour de force, a moving personal story set against the background of a country undergoing dramatic change.
It tells the story of Prince Albert (Bertie to his nearest and dearest), the second son of King George V, who suffers from a devastating speech impediment which makes his public duties as a prince next to impossible. After a succession of ineffective treatments from a score of physicians, his wife turns in desperation to an unorthodox Australian therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). After a bumpy start, Bertie begins to make some progress but when his father dies and his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) abdicates in order to marry Wallis Simpson, he’s faced with the prospect of becoming King and with the storm clouds of war looming on the horizon, it will be up to him to deliver a crucial speech to the nation.
Colin Firth is a man used to playing repressed characters under strain (look no further than last year’s excellent A Single Man) but here he has the doubly difficult task of conveying meaning without being able to get the words out. Firth is more than up to the task, managing to portray the frustration and fear of a man born to privilege who cannot escape his duty with just a look or a pause.
Geoffrey Rush is excellent as Logue. He realises that in order to treat Bertie successfully, he must first become his friend. This he does by breaking down the barriers of class and ignoring Bertie’s blustering protests in order to get to the heart of the problem – he realises Bertie’s ailment stems from a psychological repression, not merely a physical malady. But we get to see inside his life as well – we’re introduced to his threadbare but warm household – a contrast to the formal but opulent life Bertie is used to.
Films about royalty have a tendency towards pomp and grandiose sweeping shots, but director Tom Hooper keeps the framing tightly focused – the tight corridors of Whitehall, Logue’s cramped office and the claustrophobic confines of a BBC microphone booth, all of which serves to emphasise Bertie’s internal struggle with his own voice.
The King’s Speech is not merely stuffy historical drama, it’s frequently very funny. Many of Logue’s techniques involve overstepping the boundaries of protocol and this leads to some amusing conflicts with His Royal Highness, a particular swearing scene is destined to become a classic. Helena Bonham Carter also gets to exhibit the pin-sharp wit that the Queen Mum was known for on more than one occasion, something which might be surprising to those who remember her only as an old woman.
The only spanner in the works is Timothy Spall’s brief appearance as Churchill. It’s a tough role to be sure – Churchill himself is so iconic in both visage and voice that practically any portrayal of him comes across as a parody and his presence here, although necessary, undermines the film’s otherwise gentle subtleties.
That aside, The King’s Speech is nothing short of a triumph, a magnificent historical drama but also a powerfully personal one; a film about the difficulties of communication which is itself acutely perceptive and will, by turns, leave you speechless.