The King’s Speech


This is a movie about courage.  OK, it’s also a movie about love, friendship, responsibility, and heroism.  But first and foremost, it’s about courage.

We all know the story about how Edward VIII abdicated the throne for American Wallis Simpson, in favor of his brother (Colin Firth) who would become George VI.  It was a good trade for Britain.  Nazi sympathizer Edward would rootlessly and pointlessly travel the world as the Duke of Windsor, while George would go on to hold the Empire  together during WWII, if not afterwards.

What people don’t remember, although it was painfully obvious to those who heard him speak, was that George was a stammerer.  A major handicap for a prince whose main function was to speak at public events.  A serious morale-killer for a nation who would look to him to boost spirits and to, as George puts it, “speak for them.”

Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), the current Elizabeth II’s mother, would seek out the help of one Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist with experience helping shell-shocked WWI veterans overcome their own stammers.  His methods involved a sympathetic ear and friendship with his patients as much as physical training, and some of the films funniest moments come from the comedy of manners that results from a friendship between royalty and commoner.

George, never meant to be king, never trained to be king, and plagued by private self-doubt about his ability to carry out his duties, watches in horror as events move him closer to the crown, and to a position whose one duty he seems incapable of fulfilling, in an hour when much rests on that one responsibility.  The courage that he shows in facing it down stands in stark contrast to Edward’s abdication of it, long before his formal abdication.

The performances are stellar, all the moreso since they have to overcome what we do know of the current set of royals, and present us their parents and grandparents.  For those of us who only know the Queen Mother as the short, plump presence next to the Queen in the Royal Box, Carter shows us an early middle-aged woman, still young enough to be vivacious, but with some of the steel that she would show later on. Ironic then, that after we know what she thought of Edward, we see her with her children, Elizabeth and Margaret, not knowing that for her family, the worst is yet to come, and that she’ll live to see it.

None of us will every have George’s responsibility, but Firth’s portrayal allows us to identify with the head of the British Empire in his struggle to connect with people like ourselves.  Yet it’s in no small measure Logue’s insistence on friendship rather than submission, that allows us to see the Prince, and then the King, as a human being rather than a human flag.  Rush brings a dignity and a humanity to the role of an everyman who knows his place, but refuses to be intimidated by royalty.

As historical pictures do, the film plays fast and loose with some of the surrounding facts.  In the movie, Elizabeth approaches Logue in the 30s; in fact, most of Logue’s work would be done by the time George took the throne.  While it explains the C.V.O., it leaves us with the impression that it’s a knighthood – in reference to some by-play earlier in the film – when in fact, CVO is short for “Commander of the Victorian Order,” where only recipients of the two higher ranks, Knight’s Cross and Grand Cross, are knights.  There’s a scene where a BBC official, having only just met the King, shakes hands with him, which I believe would be most unlikely.

But these are quibbles.  Logue was there with George, alone, as he makes his crucial September 3, 1939 speech upon Britain’s entering the war, and was there with him for his subsequent speeches, as well.  Listen to the record of the actual speech, and you’ll hear it in a wholly different way.

In an era when a president speaks over the people in service of his ambition, it’s important to remember a time when a king spoke to his people in service to his country.