The film “The King’s Speech” depicts the speech problem of King George VI (reign 1936-1952) and how he struggled to overcome his stammering with the help of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue. Now if you think that this is a bit of a narrow subject and that you are not too interested in the details of British royal history, allow me to proleptically warn you that you might miss one of the best films of this year.
The films begins with a public speech by Prince Albert (as was his name before he became King George VI) which is severely marred by his strong stammering. This opening scene already provides a taste of the very visible pain that this speech impediment causes to the Prince and to his (ever supportive) wife. The portrayal of King George VI as a very likeable person is aided by the contrast of the rest of the Royal Family who are unsupportive to mean, cold-hearted to selfish.
His wife finds the Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, who doesn’t think much of protocol and is not burdened by any sense of unnecessary respect: “Then your hubby should pop by”, he tells the Prince’s wife. The future king and the therapist get off to a rocky start, but over time develop a relationship of trust and mutual respect. The king visibly enjoys the friendship of “the first commoner I ever really got to know”, while Mr Logue tries to hide the honour he feels for being entrusted with the task of brushing up the speech of the head of state. Their witty and at times sharp exchanges provide the film with a good tempo and add a perfectly dosed amount of humour into this drama. Just one example: After the first war-time speech, King George VI tells his therapist (and by now friend) that he doesn’t know “how I will ever be able to thank you for your help.” To which Mr Logue suggests “How about knighthood?”
When watching a film, I am usually more interested in the story, in the dialogues, the scenery, even the music, than in the actors. But in “King’s Speech” the acting by Colin Firth as King George VI is phenomenal. When he is stammering, you can see the pain in his face in every scene, as if he was really affected by this impediment. This is one movie where superb and outstanding acting opens the viewer up to a story that he might not otherwise be too interested in, and even the most die-hard republican (like myself) will find himself rooting for the king in no time. Geoffrey Rush (of “Munich” fame) is also impressive as the speech therapist.
Politics or even history are not the main focus of this film, but if one is inclined to, one can see a sort of juxtaposition between King George VI and Adolf Hitler. The king and his family, one of them the current monarch Queen Elizabeth II as an adorable girl, are watching the news when part of a speech by Mr Hitler is broadcast but not translated. His daughters ask the king “What is he saying?” to which the king – with a slight hint of admiration – replies “I don’t know, but he seems to be saying it rather well.” – This reflects the belief (which I hear quite often from non-German speakers) that Mr Hitler was a great orator. Understanding German, I have to say that I do not share this impression at all. To me, these speeches sound rather ridiculous, pathetic and like that of a yob. – A more interesting aspect to me was the juxtaposition between radio, which in the British Empire was portrayed as the up-and-coming tool for politicians to connect to their people, whereas the Nazis were already trying to utilise moving images, most famously through Leni Riefenstahl’s films.
On the history leading up to World War II, the film can be accused of being a bit distortive of historical reality: King Edward VIII, King George VI’s older brother who abdicated less than one year into his reign to get married to an American divorcee, is shown as a selfish and unappealing character. However, the films makes no mentioning of the Duke of Windsor’s (as the title of King Edward VIII was after his abdication) visit to Nazi-Germany in 1937, during which he and his wife met with Adolf Hitler, and of his sympathies for Germany which he expressed after the Nazis’ rise to power. – The other figure who gets off the hook too easily is Winston Churchill who in the film supports George VI against his brother. In reality, Mr Churchill was a vocal supporter of King Edward VIII during the abdication crisis; not one of Mr Churchill’s finest hours.