Arts & Events
Director Tom Hooper’s previous film was a brilliant profile of the legendary Leeds United soccer coach Brian Clough — a blazingly egotistical twit who could not stop talking. Now Hooper is back with an even grander film about King George VI, an insecure, self-effacing man who could barely start talking, thanks to a crippling stutter.
The King’s Speech is a glory of a film. In addition to a smart script (The King’s Speech was initially intended to be a stage play), the film features a luminous cast plucked from the upper branches of England’s acting royalty. Colin Firth inhabits the role of Albert (aka “Bertie”), the man who would (reluctantly) be king. Helena Bonham Carter is his determined and eternally supportive spouse. Guy Pearce is Bertie’s brother, the self-absorbed Edward VIII, and Geoffrey Rush is a delight as the King’s unorthodox Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue.
Bertie was never on the fast track to the throne, owing to a life-long speaking disorder. A hammering stutter that, at its worst, sounded like an early-onset death-rattle, had left him paralyzed at the thought of public speaking. There was a time when such a disability could be hidden from the masses but, as the reigning — and soon-to-be-dying King George V (Michael Gambon) — gruffly complains, the invention of the radio has changed the rules. “Now we’re expected to appear in the homes of the public!” he grouses. “We’re expected to be actors!”
This line nails one of the special delights of the film. It invites great actors to play great historical characters who are also… acting. As Lionel Logue, the eccentric Aussie speech therapist (who honed his craft treating soldiers traumatized by WWI), Rush has a field day. Piling icing on the theatrical pound cake, Logue is also an aspiring would-be actor, so we get to watch Rush, as Lionel, auditioning for the role of crippled King Richard II for a local Shakespeare group. (In one of many wistful twists, Lionel’s performance doesn’t make the cut.)
The Mouth that Roared
Ultimately, with the Duke of Windsor’s decision to swap the burdens of the throne for the charms of Mrs. Wallis Simpson, it falls to Albert to become England’s King. In order to overcome the Royal stutter, Lionel trains Albert to find his voice by using the tools of acting — breathing exercises, physical presence and mental focus. The transition is fraught with peril as England is about to face the prospect of WW II and the new, untested King must stand up against a master orator in the person of a German Chancellor named Adolf Hitler.
The rigorous training that transforms a diffident Duke into a masterly Monarch is fascinating (and frequently amusing) to behold and the pay-off is spellbinding. With the future of England and his reign riding on the success of his Inaugural address (also known as “The King’s Speech”), Albert must go where no monarch has ever gone before — into a recording studio to face a microphone that will beam his voice live over radio waves to millions of unseen but anxious citizens.
The film recreates a scene that was, for decades, known only to a few. It turns out that the address took place in a special, soundproofed room, with Logue standing directly in front of the king, guiding his every word — much like a concertmaster conducting an orchestra. It is a tense and excruciating scene but, in the end, it is a triumph of concentration over mike-fright.
It doesn’t hurt that power play over the future King’s loyalties pits Lionel against an imperious Archbishop — played to the hilt by Derek Jacobi. Or that Bertie’s feckless older brother and presumptive king, Edward, is played with flamboyant dash by Guy Pearce. These are actors at the top of their game having one of the best cinematic romps of their lives. The words — up to and including Firth’s fitful stammering — offer a spoken banquet of well-seasoned ear-morsels.
Everyone is given special moments where they are allowed to bowl over the audience with a simple look or a single, perfectly delivered word. In one scene, Rush answers a King’s question with only two words but pronounces them with such layered relish that it left the seasoned critic sitting next to me at an October press screening braying helplessly as he repeatedly slapped his thigh in a bout of unchecked hilarity.
A Free Speech Battle over the King’s Speech
There is a wonderful early scene where Bertie is relaxing and playing with his daughters, the future princesses Margaret and Elizabeth, and is called on to ad lib a story about penguins to entertain the children. Despite the stammer, he acquits himself admirably.
But there another scene that will certainly be the most talked about and savored outtake in the film. It would have become a classic even had the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) not intervened to slap the film with a restrictive “15” rating. The problem arose from an acting exercise Logue employs to loosen the king’s tongue. He entreats Bertie to let loose with a string of angry curses. Firth, as mild-mannered Bertie, begins with a couple of timid “bullocks! Bullocks!” but soon erupts into a set-piece of acting that will hold a special place in the annals of cinema.
At a full-court press conference, director Hopper and his cast excoriated the BBFC for granting more permissive ratings to such violence-filled films as “Salt” and Daniel Craig’s 007-epic, “Casino Royale.” The King’s outburst was nothing compared to the language hurled at the average British football stadium, Bonham Carter told the BBFC: “I mean, go to Tottenham, you know.” The BBFC finally relented and reclassified the film 12A with the adviso: “Contains strong language in a speech-therapy context.”
“The King’s Speech” won the People’s Choice award (and a standing ovation) at the Toronto International Film Festival in October and stands a good chance to become a contender for an Academy Award. The film opens in the Bay Area on December 3.