Prince George (Firth), known as Bertie to loved ones, has been afflicted by a debilitating stammer since his childhood. And when his brother abdicates the throne and war looms, he reluctantly turns to Aussie Lionel Logue (Rush), a speech therapist whose methods are unconventional to say the least.
Some films turn out to be unexpectedly good. Not that you’ve written them off, only they ply their craft on the hush-hush. Before we even took our seats, Inception had trailed a blaze of its cleverness the size of a Parisian arrondissement. We were ready to be dazzled. If you had even heard of it, Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech looked no more than well-spoken Merchant Ivoriness optimistically promoted from Sunday teatime: decent cast, nice costumes, posh carpets. That was until the film finished a sneak-peak at a festival in deepest America, and the standing ovations began. Tweeters, bloggers and internet spokespeople of various levels of elocution announced it the Oscar favourite, and this also-ran arrives in our cinemas in a fanfare of trumpets.
But for all its pageantry, it isn’t a film of grandiose pretensions. Much better than that, it is an honest-to-goodness crowdpleaser. Rocky with dysfunctional royalty. Good Will Hunting set amongst the staid pageantry and fussy social mores of the late ’30s. The Odd Couple roaming Buckingham Palace. A film that will play and play. A prequel to The Queen.
Where lies its success? Let’s start with the script, by playwright David Seidler, a model for transforming history into an approachable blend of drama and wit. For a film about being horrendously tongue-tied, Seidler’s words are exquisitely measured, his insight as deep as it is softly spoken. Both an Aussie and a long-suffering stammerer, he first adapted the story as a play, written with the permission of both the late Queen Mother (George’s wife) and Logue’s widow. Stretching into the legroom of film, he loses none of the theatrical richness of allowing decent actors to joust and jostle and feed off each other.
As their two worlds clash, this outspoken “colonial” and this unspoken aristocrat, Seidler mines great humour from the situation. Logue’s outlandish treatments are designed to rock George, whom he insists on calling Bertie (the impertinence!), out of his discomfort zone. He has to lie on the floor, his dainty wife perched upon his chest, strengthening his diaphragm. He has to swing his arms like a chimpanzee, warble like a turkey. And in a sure-to-be classic scene, Logue cracks the dam of his patient’s cornered voice by getting him swearing. “Say the ‘F’ word,” commands Rush, his eyes twinkling at Logue’s front. “Fornication!” howls Firth, like a man bursting. Such naughtiness — escalating to a magnificent chorus of “shits” and “fucks” — landed the film an R rating in America. The silly-billies: the moment couldn’t be more tender or uplifting.
What Hooper sensed of Seidler’s play is that this is not about fixing a voice, but fixing a mind bullied by his father (a waxen-voiced Michael Gambon as George V) and brother since boyhood, a soul imprisoned by the burden of forthcoming kingliness. Between his handsome London backdrops, elevating any potential staginess with sleek forward motion and microscopic historical accuracy (from mist-occluded parks, to the Tardis-sprawl of the BBC’s broadcasting paraphernalia with the death-noose of their microphones), Hooper plays on the idea of childhood. We meet Logue’s scruffy brood and the twee Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret; while in another scene loaded with codified meaning, George begins to open up as he gently completes a model plane. The tragedy is that he never had a childhood. Friendship is a voyage into the unknown for Bertie. Logue is gluing him together.
Hooper, whose own mother recommended the play, knew straightaway here was his cornerstone — the unlikeliest of friendships. To get all zeitgeist on its royal behind, it’s a bromance. One that required two performers to go to opposite places. Colin Firth has found a rich vein of form: A Single Man provided emotional entrapment in repressed grief, but here were greater perils still, treading the perilous high-wire of physical affliction. In terror of mockery or Rainman, he looked to Derek Jacobi’s definitive stammering in I Claudius (Jacobi winkingly cast here as a conniving Archbishop Of Canterbury) and got to grips with an actor’s greatest fear — being unable to find his words. It’s a bristling irony: acting is a craft exemplified in the crystal-clear diction of Shakespeare, but here is a gripping performance where the actor is virtually incapable of speaking at all. Not in a straight line. It is an anti-acting role, yet Firth doesn’t ever stop communicating: pain, sadness, yearning; intelligence and humour demanding escape; and the fierce self-possession of a man born to privilege. When Logue, pushing and pushing, oversteps the mark, Bertie rounds on him, furious, his voice suddenly eloquent in the spate of his fury. The idea of class is never far away; what marks out one’s place in the social network of yesteryear more than how one speaks?
Logue, a psychotherapist before his time (a royal in therapy — the very thought!), finds Rush in equally fine fettle. He locates Logue’s own shortcomings, a failed actor who turns his office into a stage, striding and pontificating, a show-off with a big heart. A modernist trying to break through social prejudice. A colonial nobody desperate to be an English somebody. Stripped walls line Logue’s drafty chambers: the deprivations of pre-War Britain are here, yet warmed by family. The cushioned train of anterooms of Buckingham Palace appear antiseptic in comparison. Life crushed by velvet. Grimacing Whitehall serving as a cold reminder of war to come.
Any behind-the-drapes depictions of British royalty carry the base pleasures of a good snoop. But these were changing times. Helena Bonham Carter makes for a vibrant Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mum-to-be), both devoted wife and teasing wit whirling around the word “contraverseeal” like a figure skater, another modernist in a dusty enclave who takes the risk of contacting Logue. If anything, older brother Edward VIII was the true trailblazer, breaking through the bars of royal absolutes to marry American divorcee Mrs. Simpson, and unthinkably vacate the throne for his timorous brother. In that decision, precedents were shattered and the modern world spilled into the royal household. Guy Pearce (an Aussie in English robes) has enormous fun as the arrogant older sibling, plumbing his voice to the borders of camp, but a flash harry flinty enough to shed a nation for a wife. As George will angrily point out, what use does a king serve anymore?
If we start small, a lonely prince trying to express himself, we end big. History knocks the door down. Edward abdicates just as that unquenchable ranter Hitler gets warmed up, and Timothy Spall drops by as a slippery Churchill (a jar to the film’s subtleties) to sneer about oncoming “Nazzzeees”. A sense of terrible urgency engulfs the therapy, but what an ending it offers. George VI must use his faltering voice to soothe a frightened nation in a radio broadcast, all but conducted by Logue, transformed into match-winning glory. You’ll be lost for words.
Think the blazing joys of Chariots Of Fire where the race is to the end of a sentence. Can it be that the British are coming?