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The King’s Speech,’ showcased last week at the London Film Festival, will not be on general release until the new year but it is such a gem that I cannot wait to write about it. In common with ‘The Queen’ from 2006, ‘The King’s Speech’ offers an educated guess at what may have gone on within the clandestine ranks of the Royal Family at a time of great crisis. Like that earlier drama, it deals with a subject matter which remains something of an open wound to the Windsors. So much so, in fact, that when veteran screenwriter David Seidler initially approached the Queen Mother with the idea for what was then a play he was met with a response along the lines of, “Not while I still draw breath, thank-you.”
The late Great Granny Windsor is a major component of ‘The King’s Speech’ but as the film begins in 1925 she is still a young woman, played with a naturally regal air by Helena Bonham Carter. Her husband is the Duke of York (Colin Firth), soon to be King George VI, but still plain ‘Bertie’ to his nearest and dearest. The Duke suffers from a crippling lack of confidence and a stammer which causes great problems when he comes to make his first public address at the closing ceremony of the Empire Exhibition. Giving long and hopefully impressive speeches is high on the job description for most members of the Royal Family, so the Duke’s condition is a huge obstacle to his being able to carry out his duties.
After consulting several doctors, Bertie has given up hope but his resourceful wife is much more stubborn. She finds Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian vocal therapist practicing in Harley Street. Having failed as an actor, Logue found a new vocation treating speech impediments with slightly unorthodox methods. He has no time for formalities or protocol and insists that he and the Duke are on first name terms if he is to take on the royal patient. The future Queen Elizabeth is somewhat taken aback by this funny little commoner and the Duke has little faith, at first, that this is the man to help him.
Meanwhile, the tides of history are sweeping Bertie closer to the throne. His grumpy, bullying father, George V (Michael Gambon), passes away and his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) is more intent on mounting the American divorcee Wallis Simpson than the English throne. Across the Channel, Hitler’s forces are rolling across Europe and threatening to pull Britain into a second global conflict. With the need to appear strong and steadfast to his subjects, through his first radio broadcast, the reluctant new monarch discovers that he really needs Logue’s help in order to convince the World that he is up to the job.
With access to Lionel Logue’s diaries and the help of a surviving grandchild, Seidler has probably got closer to the truth of the matter than some influential people might have liked . He presents a portrait of recent royal history from a new angle. Those who vehemently support the House of Windsor always like to claim that they are an institution. In ‘The King’s Speech,’ they are certainly that, with the anachronisms and barbarity that often accompany such bodies . This is the story of a man born into a role that he does not want and who has lived a life not so much of privilege but of abuse and parental cruelty which has left him too psychologically shell-shocked to fulfil his own destiny. The tale of Edward and Mrs Simpson, normally seen as an example of great sacrifice for the sake of love, plays second fiddle here .
If all this makes ‘The King’s Speech’ seem heavy going then be assured that it is not. The film will tweak at several different emotions within you as it is dramatic and heart-breaking but also very funny, joyous and inspiring. The script is razor sharp and insightful. When Logue dismisses Bertie’s previous physicians as ‘idiots’ the future King blusters, “But they’ve been knighted.” “Well, that confirms it,” the therapist responds dryly. The script exists in blissful union with all-round perfect performances. The sparring between Firth and Rush is immensely enjoyable. One scene alone, where Logue persuades Bertie to talk about his harsh upbringing and the Duke circumvents his stammer by singing details of his awful past, should be enough to merit both actors a hatful of awards.
There is also the delightful Bonham Carter as the supportive and strong-willed Queen Elizabeth but the cast is crammed with recognisable faces giving great turns. Michel Gambon plays George V, Timothy Spall is Winston Churchill, Derek Jacobi the Archbishop of Canterbury and on it goes. If you are British, the standard of acting on display here is more likely to make you feel proud to be so than the sometimes unhappy history recreated for the film. Mind you, the Australian Guy Pearce is also very convincing as the playboy Edward whose antics suggest that his blood is as much red as it is blue.
Pearce is , of course, a handsome chap and ‘The King’s Speech’ also follows on from ‘The Queen’ in ‘sexing up’ the Royals. They may have been subject to centuries of inbreeding but when our monarchs’ lives hit the cinema screen they have morphed into the physically palatable forms of Dame Helen Mirren, Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter. Should this ever go to extremes we might, one day, end up with Bradley Cooper and Scarlett Johansson attempting English accents as Charles and Camilla. For now, you have ‘The King’s Speech’ to look forward to and it will be well worth the wait.