In the winter of 1936, the rather strange King Edward VIII, ruler of the United Kingdom, Emperor of India, and so forth, announced his decision to abdicate the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson, the rather loose American divorcée with whom he was besotted. This left Edward’s younger brother, Albert, the Duke of York, to take his place—a circumstance that Albert (or Bertie, as he was called within the royal family) had never anticipated and didn’t particularly welcome. Plagued by a mortifying speech impediment—an extreme stammer—Albert knew that as king he would be required to hobnob in society and to address his subjects in speeches of considerable length, both in public and over the radio. Somewhat panicked by this prospect, and guided by his wife, the Lady Elizabeth, he sought out the services of an eccentric commoner, an emigree Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue. And Logue, through the use of decidedly unconventional techniques, undertook to cure the skittish monarch-to-be of his disabling defect.
Such at least is Albert’s story as compressed in The King’s Speech, a low-key but fascinating movie by the English director Tom Hooper. This royal tale, however unfamiliar to most Americans, is brought to vibrant life by its three leads: Geoffrey Rush as Logue, Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth, and especially Colin Firth as the bashful, tormented Albert. It’s not a typical Oscar-bait picture, but nominations, at least, seem likely in the near future.
Firth is among the most inward of actors, able to communicate a puzzled discomfort with a simple shift of his eyes; and in the role of Bertie—as Logue insists on calling him—he shows us a man walled in by the starchy imperiousness in which he’s been trained (“You’re the first ordinary Englishman I’ve spoken to,” he awkwardly tells his new therapist), and straining to free himself in search of help. Firth’s ability to project a fully detailed character through the scrim of Albert’s disability—a strangling knot of glottal chaos—is a marvel of concentrated skill.
Carter is also fine as Bertie’s affectionate wife, officially a commoner herself, who can play the game of royal deportment and also set it aside when necessary. (“It’s ‘Your Majesty’ the first time,” she tells Logue’s flustered wife (Jennifer Ehle) with muted amusement, “then ‘Ma’am’ after that.”)
But it’s Rush who most fully rises to Firth’s level here. His Logue is a failed Shakespearean actor and self-taught speech specialist; he refuses to be intimidated by his royal patient, and his course of treatment—sitting on Bertie’s stomach (“to strengthen your diaphragm”); instructing the hapless Duke to join him in furiously flapping his jowls and hopping around declaiming obscenities; and, in a breakthrough moment, tricking him into shedding his stammer momentarily through the use of a new recording device—is richly entertaining.
A number of other notable players pass through the story: Guy Pearce as the weak-willed Edward; Michael Gambon as the brothers’ dying father, King George; Derek Jacobi as the snippy Archbishop of Canterbury; and Timothy Spall (Wormtail in the Harry Potter films) somewhat overplaying the role of Winston Churchill. These characters lead us through a number of great halls and grand country houses, and the director, in a sly touch, presents these long-ago environments as they must have been: largely sunk in silence, overstuffed, and rather musty—worlds away from modern glamour and gloss.
Firth, who dominates virtually every scene with the subtlest of means, is understandably being touted for a second Oscar nomination for his work in this picture. (His first was for last year’s A Single Man.) It hardly matters if he finally collects a statuette: His performance here is its own reward.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.
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