At first, the subject of The King’s Speech seems embarrassingly trivial. With World War II looming, soon to give rise to all manner of suffering and pain and death, this is a movie about a ludicrously privileged man fighting a speech impediment, a figurehead trying to become the very best figurehead he can be. Unchallenging, relentlessly pleasant, it screams “middlebrow.”
And yet, somehow, it finds its way to something meaningful. Colin Firth delivers a masterful performance as the ludicrously privileged king in question, revealing the vulnerable man underneath the stiff formality, but The King’s Speech accomplishes more than simple humanization. It directly confronts the fact that the king is a figurehead—powerless, seemingly pointless. Underneath the pleasantries, this is a movie about what it means to be a figurehead, what makes a good one, and why it might not be so trivial a position as cynical snobs like, oh, me might believe. The King’s Speech might not be edgy, but it’s more provocative than I first credited.
Firth plays the Duke of York, second son of King George V (Michael Gambon). Plagued by a terrible stutter, the duke can barely make it through a single sentence, much less a full speech. His wife (Helena Bonham Carter) takes him to numerous speech therapists, finally resorting to Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian (gasp!) whose unconventional methods and determinedly informal manner make the duke bristle but nonetheless begin to prove effective. Meanwhile, the duke’s elder brother (Guy Pearce), heir to the throne, is alarming everyone by carrying on an affair with Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), a twice-married American heiress who could never become queen. (As leader of the Church of England, the king is not permitted to marry a divorcée in contradiction of Church teachings, and Wallis’s abrasive, domineering behavior and rumored Nazi sympathies don’t inspire anyone in the political or religious establishment to make an exception.) Speech therapy becomes more and more urgent as it grows increasingly likely that the Duke of York will not remain a duke; he may, in fact, become king.
(Just as an aside: Writing about royals is incredibly awkward. The protagonist of The King’s Speech is known to his family as Bertie, short for Albert, but he will eventually be crowned George VI. His older brother is known to the family as David, but he will be crowned Edward VIII. Bertie/George’s wife is named Elizabeth, as is their daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth II. It’s a complete muddle. I never known how to refer to any of the characters in the movie, what with the multiple names and double names and changing titles—very frustrating.)
Anyway, the cast is strong all around. Rush could pull off Lionel’s genial iconoclasm in his sleep, and Bonham Carter is effortlessly adorable as the devoted Elizabeth. (She’s become increasingly goth with her performances in the Harry Potter movies and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd and Alice in Wonderland, but she’ll always be Lucy Honeychurch of A Room with a View to me, so I was delighted to see her get back to her costume drama roots.) Pearce probably has the meatiest supporting role, playing our protagonist’s often cruel elder brother with princely hauteur and childish self-absorption. On paper, Edward’s abdication can be seen as romantic—renouncing the throne for the love of his life!—but in practice, both Edward and Wallis are far too nasty to serve as fairy tale characters. The contrast between future kings—Edward VIII and George VI—is one of the most compelling elements of the movie.
The King’s Speech unquestionably belongs to Firth, though. From the moment we first see the Duke of York, he’s locked in a silent tumult of fear and self-loathing. His stutter isn’t a cute Porky Pig stammer but an almost unbearably physical ailment. Words seem to lodge in his throat, choking him, leaving him gasping for air and composure. It’s difficult to watch and difficult to hear. You can understand why people avert their eyes, embarrassed, and why the duke resents them so much for doing so—and himself along with them. He’s not a warm, fuzzy character, easy to like. He clings to his royal status with unattractive superciliousness, and he has a temper, which he repeatedly inflicts on Lionel. A lesser performance could have been insufferable, but Firth never loses sight of how the man’s prickly, wounded nobility is part and parcel of his sense of noblesse oblige, which brings out his best traits: duty, determination, love of country.
For the irony of The King’s Speech—the subtlety of David Seidler’s screenplay—is that though poised, articulate Edward would seem to make the stronger figurehead, his pitied younger brother, awkward, faltering George, is actually the far better candidate. And if that is true—and it is—the position isn’t so superficial and meaningless as one might think. Edward understands only privilege, but George understands the responsibilities that come along with it. His resolve to be a king whom his subjects can be proud of, who can inspire them and give them hope as the country enters a very dark time—that resolve ennobles him in a way that mere titles do not. The King’s Speech doesn’t pretend that George ever becomes a great orator, but in a strange way, in a terrible time, the obvious effort expended in his radio address to his people is what gives that speech—and the movie—its power.