Imagine the life of a show pony. Bred and groomed just to be put on display and prance around to be judged by the audience. Such is the life of a modern European monarch. After centuries of influence, control and power, the European monarchies have either disappeared altogether or been reduced to the role of diplomat, expected by their people and their government to “put on a good show” for the sake of country. Simply put, royalty exists now for nothing else than the morale of the people. Tradition and history give them something to look to when things are tough, and a royal family offers a glimmer of dignity, elegance and stature that perhaps they and their country lost long ago.
This pressure put onto a child born into royalty, especially in England, is great, even today. And, in the case of King George VI in the early 1930s, it was debilitating. The King’s Speech, a new film by Tom Hooper (The Damned United) examines the pressures that this English ruler felt, as he faced three unique circumstances, each of which alone would be more than enough for one man to deal with.
Circumstance #1: George’s elder brother, Edward, ascends to the throne after their father’s (King George V) death. However, Edward is in love and seeks to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, so he abdicates the throne, leaving it to George, who is both unprepared for and intimidated by the position.
Circumstance #2: The year of the abdication is 1936. Within three years, King George’s country and colonies are at war.
Circumstance #3: Due to a crippling stammer, the guy could barely talk.
If you think The King’s Speech is just another staid period piece, with British actors dressed in gorgeous costumes, you would be sorely missing out on one of the few genuine surprises I’ve ever had at the movies.
What takes you by surprise in The King’s Speech is its depth despite its simplicity. The film is about a Prince, who would be King, who suffers from a severe stammer. Because Princes and Kings are supposed to address their subjects, especially since the invention of a new-fangled thing called radio, which makes this communication possible on a large scale, many methods are attempted to “cure” George’s (“Bertie” to his family) speech impediment. But only one speech therapist seems to make any headway with the temperamental heir to the throne—and he’s a commoner. Through his unorthodox methods, the commoner is able to connect with the Prince and help get the stammer under control so he is able to lead his subjects with elegance and grace.
So yes, that’s the plot, but the story of this film is so much more. It is a film with such character and depth of heart, such historical significance, and such humanity that I can truly understand why it is currently the front-runner to win Best Picture of the year.
It is not hard to pinpoint why this film works. Yes, the screenplay, by David Seidler, is deft, entertaining, straightforward and surprisingly and wonderfully funny. I found myself laughing out loud a few times, which I NEVER expected going in. And the costumes are, not surprisingly, elegant and gorgeous. But it is the trio of magnificent performances that lifts it into another realm. Colin Firth (King George), Geoffrey Rush (the speech therapist) and Helena Bonham-Carter (King George’s wife, Queen Elizabeth) deliver some of the finest performances of their careers and make The King’s Speech a must-see.
Rush is able to create a character that so easily could have been over-the-top, but he blends compassion and toughness in such a subtle way, and plays what could have been a stereotype (how many times have we seen the supportive, wacky teacher who inspires our hero with his unorthodox methods) as something fresh and real.
Helena Bonham-Carter finally gets to shine in her original element: a British period piece. But her years of chomping the scenery playing vivid and outlandish characters has served her well, as her portrayal of George’s wife (better known to us as the Queen Mum) is rich with texture and personality.
But it is Firth who shines the brightest as the plagued Prince/King George who must literally find his voice. In order for this movie to work, you have to both believe and believe in this character, who has been thrust into a role, by birth and by circumstance, for which he has never been prepared. Firth has always been so good at playing the stiff upper lip, but what he is able to do here is show a vulnerability and weakness—in spite of himself—that makes everything work.
We want to believe those in power and those who are in positions to influence us are smarter than us, wittier than us, and more dignified than us. But what makes The King’s Speech so affecting is that we never really think of them as just as human as us. And humans are flawed, scared and unsure of themselves. For a leader to be in touch with these emotions only makes him all the more human—and all the more inspirational.
Bottom line is The King’s Speech is funny, affecting, powerfully acted and by far the best film of the year so far. Not bad for a film about show ponies.