I hope it doesn’t sound dismissive or demeaning to people who suffer from stuttering if I say that one of the reasons it has taken me so ridiculously long to post a review of The King’s Speech — which I saw in November, almost four months ago, and have been living with in my head ever since — is because I was afraid, much as stutterers are, that when I opened my literary mouth, what would come out would not be an accurate representation of what I wanted to say. That is often that case for me when it comes to movies that are so tremendously powerful that they surpass mere ordinary moviegoing pleasure: I worry that nothing I can say with adequately do them justice. The King’s Speech is so much more than “rich people crying,” as one British film critic on the BBC recently characterized the subset of costume genre this film is unquestionably a part of (and that critic was a fan of this movie!). I hesitated in writing about it because I feared not being able to transcend that notion of the film.
The King’s Speech does work, marvelously, as personal drama, about the man who would, unexpectedly, become England’s King George VI, and had to overcome a stutter so that he could speak in public as a British monarch would be expected to do, and certainly so in a time of great public strife, as upon the eve of World War II, which the entire planet could feel coming in 1936, when Albert, or Bertie, as he was familiarly called, ascended the British throne after his brother, Edward, abdicated. If it might typically be hard to feel too terribly sorry for one of the most privileged human beings ever to walk the planet as Bertie would have been, then Colin Firth (A Christmas Carol, A Single Man) more than makes up for that with what is one of the great performances not just of this year but in cinema history. (When Firth wins the Oscar for Best Actor in a few hours for this role, it will be one of the rare happy concurrences of the actual best performance of the year being recognized by the industry’s highest honor as such.) One of the most extraordinary aspects of Firth’s performance is that it embodies everything actors are taught not to do: it is antithetical to the actor’s craft to not make himself understood, to hesitate, to not deliver his lines! Firth is almost violently sympathetic in how he — as an actor, forced to resort by dint of the nature of the role to body language and facial expression alone — communicates the excruciating terror of not being able to make himself understood. Every time Firth opens his mouth to say something onscreen here, there is agonizing suspense in wondering whether he will be able to speak. (Director Tom Hooper [The Damned United] and screenwriter David Seidler deserve credit here, too, for crafting their story so beautifully.) The power of the triumph-of-the-human-spirit story aside, there is something ineffably compelling about how uncinematic a story this is, at least in how we are used to stories being told onscreen.
The human spirit does triumph, of course — Bertie does learn to manage, at least, his disability, if not totally overcome it — thanks to his association with Lionel Logue, an unconventional therapist whose eccentric approach is precisely what Bertie needs when all the “best” the medical field has to offer can do him no good. Any “rich people crying” objections can be cast aside when we consider that it is only, apparently, Lionel, an Australian in prewar London, who is able to bust through the barriers of protocol and propriety that have, it seems, prevented the “proper” royal doctors from helping Bertie. As an American who loves England but has no love for the monarchy, and who doesn’t understand why so many Americans appear to love the British monarchy (didn’t we fight a war to get rid of these people?), I get a particular tickle out of the very dissident idea that it took a colonial to break through Bertie’s defenses (the ones that both protected him from the emotional horrors that, as we see, likely led to the development of his stutter, but also made it difficult for anyone to help him). It took someone not enamored of Bertie’s position — Geoffrey Rush’s (Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, Elizabeth: The Golden Age) glee in Lionel’s lack of respect is delicious — to help Bertie ground himself in that position and shake off the shackles of tradition. If The King’s Speech is about “rich people crying,” they’re crying in part because they realize their position is not as unassailable as they might like it to be. (Helena Bonham Carter’s [Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, Alice in Wonderland] performance as Bertie’s wife, whom we today think of as the Queen Mum, represents a lovely clipped expression of the recognition of that fact.)
But there’s more to love, more richness to be found in this tale… and these are issues that are pet favorites of mine. Here we have the fact of new technologies changing how the powerful interact with the powerless, and giving the people a new power over their leaders: Only mere years before these events, it would not have mattered if a king could not deliver a speech… but radio had changed everything, and public opinion mattered in a way it hadn’t before… as did the power to sway public opinion. (The King’s Speech is, in some ways, a radio analog to the Nixon/Kennedy debate in 1960, when politicking moved to television, and voters could see a candidate sweat, or not, and everything changed.) With The King’s Speech, we witness the ascendance of politics as national theater, which is — whether we like it or not — our reality today.
It almost doesn’t bear thinking about, what might have happened had not George VI been able speak to the British people in a time of, perhaps, their most dire need. That goes unspoken in the film, whether something so simple as a ceremonial monarch, one without even any true power except as a figurehead, being unable to inspire his people could have changed the course of a world war. Maybe The King’s Speech is all about “rich people crying”… but we might all have been crying if not for their tears.
Oscars Best Picture 2010