The King’s Speech is a winsome fantasy, as unreal in its way as Avatar. The science-fiction blockbuster succeeded in making an entirely animated world seem as though it actually existed. The King’s Speech, set in 1930s Britain and featuring famous personages, converts a stratified historical past into a comforting egalitarian dreamscape.
The Duke of York, brother and son to kings of England, has been brought low by a terrible impediment. He masters his affliction through the ministrations and considerations of a lowly commoner, a failed actor from Australia, who insists on “absolute equality.” His treatment happens to coincide with his unprecedented accession to the throne in 1936 upon his brother’s startling abdication in favor of “the woman I love,” which itself coincides with the gathering storm in prewar Europe.
The movie draws a charming connection between the stutterer’s salvation at the hands of an ordinary man and the role George VI (the title taken by the Duke of York upon assuming the crown) would be required to play in rallying the ordinary folk of England to persevere during the brutal six years that would follow the speech for which the movie is named and with which it concludes.
The whole notion is a delicious confection, and the movie is terrifically affecting—indeed, I don’t recall a movie that has stirred the kind of universal enthusiasm among its viewers that The King’s Speech has. George’s eventual triumph over his stammer becomes a kind of precursor to Britain’s triumph over Germany. Sweet. But, upon a moment’s reflection, silly.
As is its depiction of British history. Screenwriter David Seidler makes it appear as though the Britons of 1936 were ruefully aware that war with Germany was inevitable, when that was a view held by a distinct minority led by Winston Churchill. The film makes it appear that Churchill had an intellectual influence over George VI in the years before the war, which is transparently ludicrous. Seidler and director Tom Hooper even have Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin sounding Churchill-like alarums in George’s ear in 1937, when in fact Baldwin was a supporter of his successor Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, which had Chamberlain declaring he had achieved “peace for our time” in 1938.
Seidler does not want the film to pivot on British political controversy, and that is a wise decision dramatically. But making a hash out of stuff any nine-year-old can find out from a glance at Wikipedia is sloppy and calls into question his treatment of the material that really does interest him: private struggles and the king-to-be’s relationship with Lionel Logue, the therapist.
Seidler and Hooper worship both men without reservation. We are reminded every ten minutes or so that Bertie, the future king, is the bravest or the toughest or the most courageous man you are likely to meet. Lionel says so; his wife says so; and ruefully, Bertie informs Logue that words to that effect were the last ones out of his father’s mouth. “Couldn’t say them to my face,” he says sadly.
As for Logue, he is masterly and calm, dignified even when he cannot get himself cast as Richard III in a community theater production. He is not flustered in the least when he finds himself face-to-face with the Duchess of York in the basement studio where he treats his patients. He is a loving father, a devoted husband, and a charming conversationalist. And he seems to know that what his patient needs, more than a therapist, is a friend. Logue calls his royal charge “Bertie” and subtly offers psychoanalytic observations that help Bertie understand the sources of his stammer.
These are two glorious parts, and they are played by two glorious actors who are having the times of their lives. Geoffrey Rush, the shape-shifting miracle worker who played the schizophrenic pianist in Shine and the theatrical impresario in Shakespeare in Love, gives Logue a hilariously plummy voice that is the result of a lifelong effort to remove the Australian accent from his diction. And Colin Firth, as Bertie, shows yet again that he may be the first great British screen actor whose power comes not from the way he represses emotion but from the way pain and grief and rage and unhappiness explode out from him.
There are other fine turns here as well, notably Guy Pearce as the self-besotted Edward VIII and Helena Bonham Carter as the controlled Mrs. Bertie, who would later be the Queen Mum. And there are startling ones as well that offer painful glimpses at the relentless passage of time as only the cinema can offer them. Who is that parched old woman playing Bertie’s cold and savage mother? Why, it’s Claire Bloom, once one of the most beautiful women on earth. And the odd-looking thin gent playing Stanley Baldwin turns out, shockingly, to be Anthony Andrews, who was the emblematic beautiful British boy of the interwar years in the great Brideshead Revisited television series 30 years ago.
The King’s Speech says that love and friendship trump station and class. That wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now, but it’s a nice world to visit.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD’s movie critic.