Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Stammering of King George

The ending of The King’s Speech was completely over the top. There was the king, George VI, played by Colin Firth, delivering the most important broadcast of his life to the nation and the empire beyond. It’s Sunday, 3 September, 1939; it’s the day Britain declared war on Germany; it’s the day the king walked with destiny.

The nation needed to hear the voice of the king, needed comfort and reassurance. George, who suffered from a debilitating speech defect from early childhood, begins hesitantly, but conducted – literally – by Philip Logue, a speech therapist played by Geoffrey Rush, he makes his way steadily towards the end, all against a background of Beethoven. Among the palace audience, Elizabeth, the queen consort, played by Helena Bonham-Carter, was in tears, a moment of shared emotion, for I, too, was in tears! It was beautifully over the top.

The King’s Speech, directed by Tom Hooper, is the kind of historical and personal drama that I love, full of nicely observed details. There are really two stories at work; one telling of the relationship between George and Logue, the other that of the relationship between the stuttering prince and the rest of the royal family, the firm, where he is known as Bertie.

There are some superb supporting roles. Michael Gambon is first class as George V, Bertie’s father, a bullying martinet, and Guy Pearce as David, the future King Edward VIII, a contrast in every way to his shy and diffident brother. Derek Jacobi gives good value as Cosmo Gordon Lang, the archbishop of Canterbury, at once imperious and subservient, and Timothy Spall does his best as Winston Churchill. Spall is a good performer but I seriously doubt that any actor, even the best, can depict Churchill without descending into caricature, amusing and absurd at one and the same time.

If you care about this sort of thing there are some serious historical inaccuracies in the movie, the most obvious of which is the depiction of Churchill as a confidant of Bertie’s during the Abdication Crisis, when Edward, who had since succeeded his father, is obliged to give up the throne because of his insistence on marrying Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee, played here by Eve Best. In fact Churchill was one of the most prominent members of the ‘King’s Party’, Wallis or not, in what must count as arguably the greatest political error of his career.

Still, don’t let this quibble detract from a hugely enjoyable film, a hugely impressive performance by Colin Firth, masterful as always, an utterly convincing stammerer. He shows Bertie as a vulnerable human being, painfully aware of his disability and yet immersed in notions of etiquette and the stiffest forms of protocol that only served to compound the problem.

The thing is, you see, Bertie is a product, a product of his upbringing. Though born left-handed he was made to use his right, one of the causes, supposedly, of childhood stutters. Overawed by his formidable father and mocked by his rather obnoxious brother, his verbal constipation is an expression of the constipation of his personality. It might not have mattered – after all he was only the spare, not the heir – but, as daddy says, the days when all a royal had to do was look good on a horse are over; now they have to speak to the masses. The movie opens with Bertie, then duke of York, giving a speech, sorry, that should be not giving a speech, on behalf of the king at the close of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1925, clearly an occasion of deep humiliation for him and acute embarrassment for the audience.

Something has to be done, but what? Various methods are tried, including stuffing the poor chap’s mouth with marbles then asking him to read, or the king shouting at him “Get it out, boy!” As a last resort the duchess of York learns of a specialist based in Harley Street who comes recommended. I loved Helena Bonham-Carter in the part, at once puckish and condescendingly snobbish. But Logue – a super performance by Geoffrey Rush – is having none of it. A blunt Ozzie and something of a performer – as it turns out he is a failed actor – he won’t go to the mountain; the mountain must come to him. Bertie, with some reluctance, leaves the cocoon of the palace and comes to Logue’s shabby office. After a start as hesitant as his speech the two men strike up a rapport. This is not the end; it’s not the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.

Logue achieves two things; he begins to break the duke’s verbal logjam by breaking the logjam of his personality. Cutting through all protocol, he insists on calling Bertie Bertie, though nobody outside the firm has ever dared address him in such informal terms. As the therapy proceeds the two men strike up a kind of friendship, the first the duke has ever had, certainly with a commoner.

As he relaxes his speech also relaxes. But then the real crisis comes: Mrs Simpson comes. Edward, now on the throne, and frustrated in his desire to marry his American mistress, intends to abdicate. Bertie is no longer the spare; he is the man who will be king, like it or not; he will be George VI.

He doesn’t like it; he panics, fearful that he will go down in history as Mad King George the Stammerer, an echo of his ancestor Mad King George the Third. But Logue, rejected at one point for his personal and political importunities, continues to be on hand, seeing his friend through the coronation, despite the resentment of the establishment, most established in Archbishop Lang, and beyond, to that final moment of destiny on the first day of war.

This movie will last, well placed in the stable of royal thoroughbreds along with Mrs Brown, Young Victoria, The Madness of King George and The Queen. It’s a good story well told, well directed and superbly acted. It’s also a movie for the modern age, an age which does not really approve of stuffy royals and court protocol (the relationship with the real Logue was much more formal than the movie suggests). It’s a movie that humanises royalty, one that makes George just another chap, worthy of majesty once he is worthy to be a man.

What infinite heart's-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idle ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer'st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? what are thy comings in?
O ceremony, show me but thy worth!
What is thy soul of adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?
Wherein thou art less happy being fear'd
Than they in fearing.
What drink'st thou oft, instead of homage sweet,
But poison'd flattery? O, be sick, great greatness,
And bid thy ceremony give thee cure!


  1. Sounds like an interesting film.

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  3. Anna, you have a talent as a film critic! I shall definitely have to see this film now.

  4. It's not relevant to your review, but I would say that Churchill's biggest political mistake was in 1925, when as Chancellor of the Exchequer he attempted to return sterling to the gold standard at the pre-First World War rate, which severely damaged British competitiveness.

    (In lieu of not having seen the movie yet).

  5. Colin Firth is an actor that grew up, he starts behind Hugh Grant, by the way I think that Grant is an actor not so great, good is not enough and he is only good, Firth showed that he can do better things and complex performances, like "A single man", marvelous movie and spectacular acting, Firth gain my confidence in him with that, I like actors that come from behind without too much publicity, publicity is important when you demostrate something first. I know about this movie, i wrote some general information about it and let the trailer, I wait to see it, i will enjoy it I think but i will wait to write an article with my thoughts. Kisses. Mario.

  6. Thanks, Adam, your kind words are appreciated. I absolutely agree that Churchill was a royalist in the old sense, the last of the cavaliers, if you like, whose first impulse was always loyalty. In some ways he was the Clarendon of the twentieth century. But as time passed he came to see the worth of George over the worthlessness of Edward. Just imagine him on the throne in 1940!

    I enjoyed your review, highly politically informative, though I felt that you were really asking for a different movie, one more focused on the events of 1936. The Abdication Crisis was a crucial threshold for Bertie but ultimately it was no more than that – a threshold, which made the question of his speech impediment all the more crucial. The climax was the final speech of September 1939, which was the King’s Speech.

  7. WfW, thanks. You must let me know what you think when you've seen it.

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  10. Mario, he was awarded a Golden Globe today for his performance, richly deserved. Grant, unfortunately, sold his talent, such as it is, for a mess of pottage, playing up to the silly stereotype of the dotty Englishman. Let me know when you’ve written your article.

  11. It's rather surprising that the subject has never been tackled directly by movie makers, full as it is of dramatic interest.

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  14. If only Edward had married Gromit, instead.

  15. Calvin, that's quite enough. You'll be hearing from my solicitor about this. :-)

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  17. In Shakespeare the fools tend to have some of the best lines; but they are not the idiots. :-)

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  20. ..full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I may be a poor player but I shall do my best to enjoy my hour upon the stage, strut and fret as I may. :-)

  21. Great review! I watched the movie and thought you would have a review so I scanned on google reader list and found you did have one!
    There were not so many movie I enjoyed during recent years but this one is an exception. Despite of historical part (true or untruth), I highly enjoyed the performance of Colin Firth and that "fake" therapist.

  22. Thanks, Yun yi. :-) I predicted that Firth would win best actor at the Oscars and Portman best actress for Black Swan. I should have placed a bet!

  23. Wow! That's good!
    If I watched "King's Speech" before Oscar I would've believed he should won. He did brilliant job! I did backward (saw he won Oscar then went to the movie) and surprisingly not only I didn't feel any disappointment but full of satisfaction! It triggered my interest on this George King VI!
    I will watched Black Swan later.

  24. I loved it for Portman's performance alone. I have a review here and on Flixster.

  25. thanks! i will check it out. :-)

  26. An absolutely superb film by all means. I also noted the Churchill error. Personally, I believe Churchill must have known it in his heart of hearts (perhaps there are clues in Speaking for themselves the private letters between Churchill and his wife, I haven't checked). However, Churchill was the most loyal of subjects to the reigning monarch, whoever it may be and I believe he would not have acted any other way.

  27. Rehan, yes loyalty always came first with Churchill.