Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The King’s Speech

I am not a fan of the British monarchy, an anachronism if ever there was one. But Americans, defenders of democracy, adore the British royals. The King’s Speech (2010; dir. David Seidler) feeds that adoration.

This film’s virtue is that its real interest is not the monarchy but the developing friendship of two men—one of them a shy man with a temper who happens to be second in line to the British throne; the other a failed actor turned voice coach whose controversial methods are said to help people who stutter. Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth), doesn’t wish to be king, though he recognizes that his brother David, the Prince of Wales, is immature, shallow, and unprepared to lead. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) on the other hand wants to make a mark in some way. He fails at landing roles in the theatre, so he works as a speech therapist. His family lives in a shabby apartment, and he ekes out a living at what he does. The parallels between them extend into their families—the tawdry apartment and meager circumstances of the Logues and their sons contrasting with the plush, elegant surroundings of the prince, his wife, and their daughters—Margaret and Elizabeth.

Albert’s wife, Elizabeth, seeks Logue’s help for her husband’s stammering, and the voice coach and the prince begin working together. Both are aware of the differences between them in class—an impoverished teacher on the one hand and a member of the royal family on the other. Albert expects to be addressed by his royal title, but Logue insists on calling him Bertie, a name used only by family members. Logue requires that they work together on a basis of equality, a requirement Albert resists. At one point Albert’s objection to Lionel and his methods brings an end to their work together. But when brother David (King Edward VIII) abdicates the throne Albert finds himself King George VI of England and in need of speaking successfully to the British people on the eve of the Second World War. His relationship with Lionel resumes.

The title has multiple meanings. One is the literal matter of the king’s speech. Albert suffers a terrible stammer that prevents him from speaking publically without great difficulty and embarrassment. His stammer causes him to doubt his own worth, especially in comparison to his older brother , who makes vicious fun of his speech difficulties during an argument. Another meaning is the radio address Albert gives on the eve of the Second World War He needs to speak well enough to reassure and inspire the British people, who are about to enter a long and painful war. A third meaning derives from the power that derives from the speech of a king—as an expression of will, power, authority.

This friendship and the surrounding melodrama give The King’s Speech its interest. It doesn’t rely on the aura of glamour surrounding the monarchy. Nor does it show the royals as anything more or less than what they are—privileged, imperfect people. The acting of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush is excellent, and as a human story set in a mid-twentieth century historical context, the film works on every level.

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