Every few years a film comes along, inspired by real events, that makes me ask the question, “Why don’t I already know this?” Sometimes a real life story can be so unusual, so inspiring, so unexpected that it seems as if it should be common knowledge. This year seems to be a particularly strong year for films based on true events. The Social Network, The Fighter and 127 Hours are all films vying for Hollywood’s biggest awards. This Christmas weekend the film festival hit The King’s Speech went into wide release, hoping to add its name to the aforementioned films.
The plot of The King’s Speech is fairly straightforward. The Duke of York (played by Colin Firth), or “Bertie” as he is called by his family, is second in line to the British throne. However, he has a speech impediment, a stammer, that prevents him from speaking in public and has made him an object of public mockery. He has given up hope he will ever overcome the impediment, having seen the best speech therapists in Britain. Of course, this shouldn’t cause a problem as Bertie is never expected to take the throne and his public engagements are limited.
His wife (played by Helena Bonham Carter) does not give up hope and takes him to see Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist who believes speech impediments are more psychological than mechanical. What follows is fairly predictable — Logue and Bertie become fast friends, we gain insights into the complicated lives of the royal family, and, of course, scandal rocks the nation and Bertie is forced to take the throne as King George VI just as Britain is on the brink of war with Nazi Germany.
Where the film really shines is in its acting, for which it will undoubtedly receive much recognition during this award season. Firth is masterful as King George VI and gives the character multiple layers of depth. On the surface, his use of the speech impediment must have been no easy task, and it is both believable and heartbreaking. Underneath the surface, he manages to portray Bertie as humble and, at the same time, furious over the cards he has been dealt. He portrays Bertie as being very self-aware, aware of his life of luxury, of how ignorant he is of the common man, aware of his role as a symbol of the British nation and of the danger his country is in. At the moment, Firth seems to be the odds-on favorite to win the Oscar this year — and deservedly so.
Of course, Firth is not the only actor being lauded for his role. Geoffrey Rush is also excellent as Lionel Logue, a failed Australian actor turned speech therapist. Rush and Firth have an instant rapport, and the best scenes of the film are when the two are alone on screen. The audience quickly believes in the unlikely friendship, as the two actors work so well together.
The two characters juxtapose each other perfectly — one the royal, one the commoner — while at the same time they share commonalities leading to their friendship. Bertie’s speech impediment has made him something of a disappointment and an outsider, while Logue’s failed acting career and Australian heritage do the same for him. By then end of the film, Rush’s motivations seem clear. He is no longer helping out the king for money, fame, knighthood or King and Country. He is doing it simply to help his friend.
Helena Bonham Carter shows her acting range very well as the late Queen Mother. Known for always portraying more eccentric characters, she comes off as a very sincere woman trying to help her husband. Likewise, Guy Pearce was a perfect choice to play the Prince of Wales, and the actresses who played the young princesses bear an uncanny resemblance to the actual Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. The only actor who fails to deliver is Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill. While he perfected the Churchillian voice, his look and demeanor lack the gravitas one would expect from Britain’s most famous leader.
While the plot may not thrill, the film is certainly compelling. The tale of a humble king trying to overcome a disability is noble and timeless — something we can all be inspired by. The most poignant scene in the entire film comes when Bertie is viewing some newsreels with his family. A news program displaying what is going on in Nazi Germany comes on, and Hitler is seen giving one of his rousing speeches, sending millions of assembled Germans into a frenzy. Bertie’s daughter Elizabeth (the current Queen) leans over and asks, “What is he saying?” King George, gazing intently at Hitler, responds in his slow, stammering manner: “I don’t know, but he’s certainly saying it well.”
Here we see the central conflict of the film laid before us. On the one hand is one of the most charismatic men, and one of the most evil, to ever walk upon the earth. On the other, a humble king — noble, yet impeded by disability. By confronting his fears, Bertie becomes the symbol of a nation, a symbol of perseverance, humility and triumph. Even if The King’s Speech doesn’t take home the Oscar for best picture of the year, it will certainly be the most inspiring.
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