Film review: The King’s Speech

Yesterday, I went to see The King’s Speech. It’s the first time I’ve actually been to a cinema since Chicago came out, so that was a little strange. I’d forgotten how dark they are, how bloody long the ads and previews go for, and how many irritating people there are in the audience. Given that my main reason for not going to the cinema is that a) I’m not good at sitting still for a whole movie and b) I want to comment and ask questions and generally theorise and chatter, which is not polite behaviour in a cinema, I found it rather irritating to have people on my left fidgeting and moving and bouncing up and down and people to my right talking and asking questions and finishing the King’s sentences. I mean, really. It’s a film about stuttering! How is this a clever thing to do?

Anyway, my conclusion is that I loved the film, but I still prefer watching films at home where I can ask about things or comment on things or think about them or even go away and research them as they occur to me. And this film has a lot of things I want to think about and research some more. I’m definitely going to be seeing it again, possibly even in the cinema.

The acting was, I think, excellent. Colin Firth’s (or rather, Bertie’s) stutter was absolutely painful to watch and listen to, and it felt very real, at least to me. There was one point where he was trying to give a speech on the radio, and his father was sitting there opposite him and every time he started nerving himself up to speaking, he would bark at him just to take a deep breath and relax, and you could just see Bertie close up into tension again. I really wanted to scream at him to just leave Bertie alone. And there was one point in the film, when he is about to make a speech and takes in a very long breath in order to prepare himself, and I found myself breathing in in time with him – and then realised that I could hear the sounds of long breaths being drawn in all around me in the cinema! So clearly they did something very, very well in terms of building tension and drawing the audience into the story. I also loved Bertie’s dry (and necessarily laconic) humour, and I love it even more having now read that some of his remarks came verbatim from Logue’s diaries. One thing that bugged me all the way through, though, was the way that Bertie never actually got to speak his own words in any of the speeches – it’s made clear that the job of the King is to speak to and for the people, but the words and the sentiments are all created by others, and he only gets to read them (I realise, of course, that modern politicians don’t write all their own speeches, but I believe they do give their speechwriters a brief of what they want to say – George was simply given the speech and told to read it). I couldn’t help wondering if this was part of the problem with Bertie’s speech in the first place, and found it slightly ironic that there was so much talk about ‘finding his voice’ – which would then be used to speak the words of other people.

I always love Geoffrey Rush (who played speech therapist Lionel Logue), and this was no exception. I can’t really think of much to say about him, he was just extremely good, though one did wonder at times why he put up with Bertie (King George’s given name). I think perhaps it’s hard to write about him because the nature of his role and character was to be there and be supportive – yes, he did the unconventional larrikin thing well, but he was, effectively, George VI’s Best Supporting Actor.

Helena Bonham Carter was the stand out for me as Bertie’s wife and future Queen. I loved the way she managed simultaneously to be very warm and utterly attentive to her position and dignity. There’s a lovely scene in which she meets Mrs Logue (also known to me as Elizabeth Bennet), and remarks “I’m informed your husband calls my husband Bertie and my husband calls your husband Lionel. I trust you won’t call me Liz,” which sounds terribly formal and cold, but she says it with such charm and warmth that you see the formality which is so important to her, but there’s no offense in it. And I do love Mrs Logue asking her husband rather uncertainly “Will their Majesties be staying for tea?” and the Queen responding “We would love to, such a treat, but alas…a previous engagement. What a pity.” Everyone else in that scene is stumbling around, trying to figure out the proper etiquette for this situation, but the Queen is utterly self-possessed and in control. You can tell her dinner parties would all run absolutely perfectly. I also loved her relationship with Bertie.

The supporting cast was excellent, and responsible for some heart-stoppingly good moments. I loved the old Queen turning away from her husband’s deathbed, kissing her son’s hand and saying “Long live the King!” without another word of emotion – you could see the grief in her face, but also the absolutely rigid strength and control. Weeping in public – even in the very limited public of family and a couple of officials – would not be appropriate, and she is clearly horrified when David (King Edward) does cry. Incidentally, both Edward and Wallace Simpson were excellently cast and acted.

The moment when war is declared is also made remarkable in a very brief and silent cameo – Logue has been listening to the radio broadcast with his wife and younger sons, and just as war is declared, the eldest son, who looks to be eighteen or so, walks into the room. Nothing is said, but suddenly you realise exactly what the war is going to mean for Logue’s family, and by extension for everyone.

One thing that really struck me at the end of the film, when King George is giving a speech at the start of the war, was how much of a unifying symbol the King and the Royal Family was at that time. You see people all over the Empire listening to his words on the radio, and you can see them responding to these words (actually, the expression on his elder brother’s face during that scene really made me want to know more about what he was thinking – one way in which this film felt real was that it gave a definite sense that there was a lot going on beyond the bounds of the story and what we saw). That’s not something we seem to have anymore, at least in Australia, and I suspect it’s not really the same in Britain, either. It’s possible that in an ideal world, Americans feel that way about speeches from their president, but I don’t recall ever hearing an Australian politican (or even the Queen) speak and thinking, yes, this person is speaking for me. Perhaps this is partly because Australia has never been at war in my lifetime in a way that would impact ordinary Australians – a common enemy is a very unifying thing, after all. But watching the film, I did find myself seeing both the way the King was used as a symbol (and the film makes it very clear that the King’s role is almost wholly a symbolic one), and being a bit wistful for a life in which such a symbol existed.

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