The K-K-K-King and I

The King’s Speech is traditional in treatment of its subject matter; director Tom Hooper’s feel-good historical melodrama

Helena Bonham Carter, Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush star in the King’s Speech directed by Tom Hooper | Photo: www.filmnoir.com

Being a sucker for anything retro, this film had me hooked at the first glance. A large, shiny, alt-deco microphone which looked like something from an old Flash Gordon serial. A huge transmitting with banks of transistors and (yes!) a wood-panelled desk inlayed with hundreds of flickering gauges and metres. Best of all, a BBC announcer wearing an evening dress who really did speak in ‘received English.’

This was the opening scene of Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech and, happily, the film continued in this vein.

Now, I have to say, as a historian and a no fan of the royal family, I didn’t go into this film with high expectations. But I was presently surprised. Although the film was very much a feel-good melodrama, it was reasonably historically accurate, and certainly never sunk to Braveheart levels.

The story itself is simple enough — Albert, the Duke of York (ably played by Colin Firth), has a stammer and therefore goes to a speech therapist to get it cured. The premise doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but it’s the actors and the various sub-plots boiling away in the background which make the film interesting and entertaining. The film begins in 1925 and proceeds up to 1938. We therefore see the death of George V, the coronation and abdication of Edward VII, the rise of ‘Herr Hitler’ (as he is referred to throughout the film), Albert’s coronation as George VI and the outbreak of war. So, enough going on to fill an hour and a half.

All of these events play in an important role in Albert’s on-going attempts to cure his problem, and we slowly see the origins of his stammer appear. One of the film’s strengths is the way in which it mixes personal and public issues to good effect. For example, we see Albert’s father, George V, give a Christmas speech. George, played as a gruff avuncular father figure by Michael Gambon, then goes on to explain the importance of ‘this modern radio’ to Albert, and us as well, the implications this has, ‘turning the royal family into that worst of professions — actors.’

But, as he bullies his son into trying to give a speech, we also see the distance between father and son, and Albert’s father inability to understand his son’s problems. This scene, and George VI’s death-bed scene, really reveal the constrained atmosphere that children of the Royal family grew (and grow) up in. This is really brought home when Edward VII is overcome by the sight of his dead father, breaks down in tears and runs out of the room, leaving everyone else standing around looking awkward and stiff-lipped – you can almost hear them thinking ‘Good lord!’ and ‘what a poor show!’ It’s a great scene in the old British tradition of black comedy.

Really, it’s the relationships that are at the heart of the film – the friendship that develops between the speech therapist, Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush) and Albert. It develops from their first prickly meetings, where Albert’s stuttering and introverted shyness is contrasted with Logue’s extroverted, eccentric manner.

Their first meeting seems to be a failure, but Albert returns, and their friendship slowly develops until the end scene, where Logue mouths Britain’s proclamation of war to the now George VI. Logue combines the arts of speech and psycho-therapy into one, not only giving Albert breathing exercises, but also probing into his upbringing, and teasing out of him his problems with his brother and father. Could it be that some royals would benefit from a little psycho-analysis? The film hints, but never makes it explicit.

Certainly the film is traditional in its treatment of its subject matter, but I liked that. The old story of ‘man overcomes personal problems to become a more well-rounded individual’ is, as they say, an oldie but a goodie. And it’s helped by the sumptuous period drama that we Brits seem to be so good at. Everyone’s terribly well-dressed, speaks awfully well (promise is apparently pronounced as pwlomise) and no-one seems to be without a cigarette in their hand.

The actors, too, make the film a joy to watch. Particularly Edward VII, played by Guy Pearce, who is great as the dissipated fop who refuses his responsibilities to be with the twice-divorced American (good God!) Wallis Simpson. He’s brilliantly caddish in every scene he’s in. Whether arriving in a bi-plane wearing Biggles-esque leathers, showing more concern for the choice of wine than a constitutional crisis, or belittling poor Albert for his stammer, he always comes over as an absolute rotter. The fact that his (documented) admiration for Hitler is referenced, but not played on too heavily, also satisfied the historian in me.

Hats off too, to Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth: Who else could combine elegance, snobbery and affection but her. And who thought I’d ever find the Queen Mum sexy?

Anything that grates? Timothy Spall, who seemed to be playing Churchill as if he was doing a bad impression in a pub. Constantly waving a cigar, glowering and muttering every line into his jowls, he does start to annoy a little after a while. I know that was Churchill’s public persona, but I’m sure he didn’t behave like that.

So, did the film deserve its 14 BAFTA nominations? In the end, maybe not. It’s a very good film, but its ground-breaking?  Well, perhaps not. The actors are excellent; it considers many different themes – responsibility, perseverance, privilege and class, and it’s a good story.

But for a film to deserve so much praise, I expected a film to transcend its boundaries.

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