Being a king, especially a modern king, is really a bizarre position to be in if you think about it. To be given an incredible degree of importance and power simply because you were born to the correct parents rather than through your own ambition, effort, and worthiness is simply not a typical part of the human condition. Granted, there are many people who are born into privilege, but they usually don’t have to be public figures if they don’t want to and they aren’t expected to be any sort of leader if they aren’t interested in being one. Things get even weirder when you consider the precarious position of being a monarch in an age of democracy when their role is supposed to be symbolic but sort of isn’t. What does it mean to be a born leader, both literally and figuratively? The King’s Speech is a film that perhaps doesn’t ask or answer many of these questions, but it is about someone who has all of the above swirling in his head all of his life.
The film is about King George VI, who began his life as Albert Duke of York (Colin Firth). Albert was not the first in line for the throne and had likely made himself content with his role as a secondary monarch to his older brother Edward VIII (Guy Pearce). Even if he wasn’t the younger brother in line for the throne, Albert’s leadership ability always would have been doubted because he was afflicted with a prominent stutter in his speech which made his public appearances limited and infuriated his father (Michael Gambon). Of course anyone who knows their recent British history knows that this wouldn’t last, Edward VIII was destined not to last long as the king and soon Albert would find himself leading his country in its darkest hour. This film is the story of his time with an unorthodox Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) who was asked by Albert’s wife (Helena Bonham Carter) to help Albert get over his stutter, a task that would become all the more urgent when Albert is asked to give a major radio address to his subjects on the eve of World War II.
Though he was not personally involved with any part of the production, it feels like The King’s Speech is heavily indebted to the British screenwriter Peter Morgan and especially his 2008 snorefest Frost/Nixon. Make no mistake, this is better than that ridiculous middlebrow exercise, but it has a lot of the same aura to it. Frost/Nixon was massively over-rated when it came out and was quickly forgotten afterwards because it was supposedly able to get a lot of drama out of a “mere” series of interviews. Similarly The King’s Speech has been greatly praised for getting drama out of Albert’s speech therapy, but I don’t exactly think that’s as much of an accomplishment as a lot of people seem to think. Most of the people making these statements would seem to know better, have these critics not seen movies that get great drama out of dialogue before? The film also has similarly inherited much of Frost/Nixon’s tone, which is to say it’s kind of stiff and muted to the point of stodgy.
The film also inherits Frost/Nixon’s bad habit of exaggerating the importance of the events it depicts. I’m sure that the King’s ability to give a speech did help British morale to some extent, but I don’t exactly think that it’s the life or death struggle that the movie makes it out to be. I will not however dwell on the Frost/Nixon comparisons much longer, as this movie does probably deserve a little more credit than that. It also has a script that is slightly less prone to over-explaining the history surrounding the events, though I’ll admit that might have more to do with the increased familiarity I have about the Nixon administration over the ascension of George VI.
Probably the best part of the film is Geoffrey Rush, who turns his character into an energetic teacher who gets to the root of Albert’s problem. I seriously doubt that the real Lionel Logue was anywhere near as wise as the character here, but the character is interesting all the same. Firth’s performance is a bit more predictable, but it works for what it is. The actor does sort of resemble the real king and if you look up some of George VI’s actual speeches they also sort of sound the same. Albert lived just long ago enough that his image isn’t overly tied to video footage in our collective minds, so we don’t really get that Jamie Foxx as Ray/Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin vibe of thinking Firth looks and sounds just like the real guy, but that whole thing was getting kind of old anyway so that’s probably for the best.
There’s also a class difference conflict between the two characters, with Logue (a commoner with origins in the colonies) often challenging the king in ways that would not normally be acceptable. It is to the filmmaker’s credit that they didn’t sugarcoat Albert’s less than pleased attitude about this, the character can be a classist prick at times. The film’s less than sympathetic treatment of Edward VIII is also interesting; this is a story that easily could have been turned into an epic romance of its own, but here the former monarch is depicted as little more than a spoiled and reckless brat. The limits of how much the monarchy can bend its traditions to the times is explored by both of these sub-plot but it’s never examined with anywhere near the depth that it was in Peter Morgan’s significantly better film The Queen.
Stylistically, the film can probably best be described as competent but bland. The period costumes are convincing and the sets are appropriately decorated, but remember that this is set in the twentieth century and not earlier, so most of these costume drama trappings are not going to be as elaborate as they are in movies about older monarchs. Director Tom Hooper is not particularly interested in taking any major risks here, this is small scale and predictable filmmaking and it probably could have been made as a BBC original film without many sacrifices.
As the film plays out it becomes clear that it’s all leading up to World War II, and of course the film’s titular speech. The speech scene itself is pretty good; they show Firth speaking into the microphone with clear conviction and struggle against a montage of British subjects listening sternly. That’s kind of a manipulative approach, but it mostly works in its own kind of corny way. I looked up the recording of the real speech on Youtube, and it does indeed sound more or less the way it does in the film. What I’m less impressed with is the manufactured drama and suspense that leads up to it. The film takes clear liberties with the chronology of Albert’s treatment and leads up to a less than believable finale in which he needs to deliver this speech at a point where he’s as bad a stutterer as ever. Give me a break. The real king’s handlers never would have created a situation like that with such a gaping possibility of failure, it’s ridiculous. The real Prince Albert had already improved his speech dramatically as early as 1927 and would have been a lot more prepared for this speech than the film portrays.
The King’s Speech is, in final analysis, a decently workable bit of filmmaking. There is very little here that you haven’t seen before, it follows the three-act structure like dogma and it is shot with minimal ambition, but its disinterest in risk does pay off in that very few of its choices backfire in any kind of unexpected way. This feels like the kind of prestige picture that was being made in the eighties, it delivers simplistic stories under the dressing of sophistication; in short, it’s middlebrow as hell. I can’t say it’s a movie that doesn’t work, but it was never going to soar, and I’m surprised that it has managed to trick people into thinking that it does just that.
*** out of Four