On the outset, the thought of another British period drama about royalty exacts some levels of excitation the equivalent of a stuffy, starchy, costume-wrapped Sunday afternoon teatime drama mostly watched by your repressed grandma. You’d think perhaps it’s time for some cinematic monarchy revisionism – imagine Henry the XIII going all Scarface on the Roman Catholic Church with a handy AK-47 on hand, spluttering “Say hello to my little friend”, or Queen Elizabeth II dropping the corset and donning Sarah Connor leather gear and blasting all the Tories for the rough spending cuts. But alas, the ink used in dusty history books are so old they cannot be re-written. So here comes Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, not so much revisionist like another British period drama in 2010 (the quietly devastating Never Let Me Go) as reverential. Here is a period movie that respects all factual accounts, national dignity and British identity, a film about royalty populated with actors in costumes, sets draped in velvet, rooms draped in gold.Yet somehow, curiously, it doesn’t end up as self-righteously pompous and suffocating, nor draped in a rose-tinted, empty spectacle of jingoism. For once you finally see the titular king delivering the speech of his life, you’ll know deep down that you cannot banish this one to just mere “British costume drama”. The King’s Speech is so much more than that.
At its very core is a fresh reworking of an underdog tale, albeit a not-so-shaggy one, as the central protagonist is a man who would one day be king, yet never desired to be one. Think Rocky in Buckingham Palace, with public speechmaking instead of boxing. King George VI (Colin Firth), then Prince Albert, Duke of York, beset with a lifelong stammer, is faced with the incontrovertible circumstance of ruling a nation at the brink of WWII, after the death of his father George V and the abdication of his older brother Edward III of the throne in the intention of marrying an American divorcée. This potentially crippling impediment bears a solemn national significance, as this set during a pivotal moment of history where a leader/monarch’s voice can unite or divide a nation. There is a subtle, telling scene where His Highness watches Hitler ranting during the Nuremberg marches in a projected black-and-white reel when one of his daughters, possibly Elizabeth (the presently presiding Queen), what Hitler was speaking about. Albert responds he doesn’t know but Hitler says it “rather well”.
It’s a profound resonance, then, a voice can speak for a nation itself but The King’s Speech isn’t really bothered much about that part of history. It only serves as a haunting backdrop. The real show here is the King, his speech, and his overcoming of a very recognisable human flaw. Here, there are no vast tribulations, or intense poverty struggles like most heroes in underdog stories have to shackle themselves from, but a personal, private affliction. Hooper’s thesis adds up that Albert’s speech impediment is a by-product of emotional bullying by the royal family, a domineering, perfectionist father King George V (an excellent Michael Gambon), a cold, distanced mother Queen Mary, and a taunting twat of a brother Edward VIII (Guy Pearce bordering on camp, but brilliantly sketched). It plays on a dysfunctional family mode, but only elegantly and eloquently revealed in certain moments where Albert has to face the furious spat of his Papa for not being able to form precise words in front of a microphone, and Edward’s disdainful mimicking of his younger brother’s stuttering. The adolescent pain, low self-esteem of this blue-blood is fully fleshed out during these encounters, and Albert’s spirit is reduced to fragments.
Enter Geoffrey Rush’s unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue, whose therapy methods borders on the almost bizarre and unconventional, teaching Albert that there is barely a cure but only through confidence and perseverance. And the resulting therapy scenes are electrifying. This is where The King’s Speech truly comes alive on its own – a mismatched duo of sorts that slowly, beautifully, unfolds into a striking friendship of two people from two very different backgrounds, bringing out the best out of each other. And it’s hard to think of other actors nailing down these roles. Firth, who also gave a nuanced, graceful performance in this year’s A Single Man, is a marvel. Perhaps playing all different sorts of British stiff upper-lip toffs have refined Firth throughout the years, but an actor playing a character at loss of articulation and elocution must be a tough gig. And yet Firth makes it very affecting, showing moments of palpable pain through a mere broken syllable, or self-doubt in tongue-tied encounters, even blustering pride when faced with a threat of uncovering his personal torment, and ultimately self-loathing when he glances at his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter injecting so much warmth, caring and love to the role) for failing again. His match is Rush, nothing less than extraordinary here. Hilarious, witty and no-bullshit, his Australian mentor lives by the life of no rules, a good person stifled from being great, a failed actor, a mediocre husband. But Rush draws sympathy through his fearless embodiment of man who never quits, and believes in the human spirit. When we watch Lionel vehemently coaxing the King to release a volley of swearwords in a classic scene, Albert stands up and says “Fuck! Shit! Balls! Tits!” as if for the first time, we’re taken into this journey to the final scene of self-redemption – the King delivering his speech to the mass media, an entire nation, and subsequently the most of the world, unaware of what happened behind the stage, with a friend who helped him conquer his own human frailty, like a musical conductor directing an orchestra. The result is a soaring hymn to friendship and finding one’s voice.
Forget the stuffy royal period-drama trappings, this is a sparkling powerhouse of a movie. Like the best of good old-fashioned crowdpleasers, this one is an epitome of a classic triumph, exquisitely performed by a nuanced Firth in a performance of a lifetime that may just land him an Oscar gold.