On December 10, 1936, not even a year after the death of his father, King Edward VIII abdicated his throne. He did so to marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American socialite. The abdication came on the heels of a sensational constitutional crisis that gripped Britain and her dominions.
Under the rules of the Church of England, of which the monarch is the head, no man or woman could marry a member of the opposite sex who’s former husband or wife were still living. Edward, the eldest son of King George V, gave up the rights to the throne that day and changed the course of the British monarchy forever. With the abdication, the throne went to his younger brother, Albert (who took the name King George VI), who is the father of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
But there was a problem with the new king: he stammered when he spoke. Cruel pauses and difficult words tortured the man ever since his childhood. Additionally, King George came into power during such extraordinary times. While the monarch has no real power today (he didn’t at the time, either), he was still a symbol of the British Empire and was someone to whom his subjects would turn in times of turmoil. There was plenty of turmoil during King George VI’s reign: he had to help guide the country through the Munich Agreement, the war, and managing a tough peacetime economy and shifts in global power due to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. He was a man who had to overcome his stammer in order to lead an empire, and he managed it until his death in 1952.
But what helped him overcome that stammer? Well, it was an Australian-born speech therapist Lionel Logue, and the story of a king overcoming such a fundamental problem in his life is detailed in the 2010 Best Picture winner, The King’s Speech. Directed by Tom Hooper, the film details the few short years at the beginning of the king’s reign and his work with Logue.
Not a war movie by design, but rather a film about a man’s war within himself, The King’s Speech is an extraordinary contemporary period piece with an artistic flair and meticulous attention to detail. King George, played by Colin Firth, must battle with his own barrel of self-doubt, his political enemies, his father’s shadow, the ridicule of his family, and guiding the nation through turbulence and war. His performance, and that of Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue, are two performances for the ages.
This is a film I’ve seen before, and I’ve always loved it. But looking at it in a new light exposed its brilliance, narrative genius, and thematic principles to me for the very first time. And, I love it even more.
Now, for the rest of the movie.
The King’s Speech opens with Albert, the Duke of York closing the British Empire Exhibition in 1925. The Duke stutters and stammers his way through a rather uninteresting speech. Following a series of unsuccessful lessons with different speech therapists, Albert’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) stumbles across Logue. Logue is an effective speech therapist even if his methods are out in left field.
Slowly, Logue works with Albert, who Logue insists on calling Bertie to portray that they are both equals within his therapy lounge, and tries to get to the bottom of the psychological reasons behind his stutter. Albert initially resists this foray into his personal life, as he’s the Duke of York.
On September 3, 1939, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain reveals that the government will declare war against Germany, the King must give his own speech and inspire confidence within the nation.
The synopsis I just gave is not a great one, but it’s hard to really do this film’s narrative justice without getting too far into the weeds. Because, in reality, The King’s Speech tells many stories at once, the different narratives flow together so well that it’s hard really to believe you’re watching many of them at the same time.
First, there’s the personal story of Albert and later King George. This one is the most obvious. Bertie must try to overcome his self-doubt and own struggles in order to be an inspiring king. Second, there’s the story of his brother’s abdication. The abdication by Edward VIII brings into sharp relief the idea that Bertie is not well-respected or understood by his family, particularly his father, George V who’s played by Michael Gambon.
And then, there’s the world at large. The rise of Hitler, the threat to Europe from the Nazis and the British government declaring war against the forces of evil. From the start, The King’s Speech is utterly engrossing and it tells its tale beautifully, slowly building upon itself. To me, the entire narrative made me think of that vortex that forms when you drain the bathtub. The water starts slow on the outside. The water is drawn, slowly at first, and then faster later to the center of the vortex. By the time the water reaches the middle, it’s spinning wildly. The world of George V is the same. Each new problem is greater than the last one and he, like all of us, get caught up in world events on a larger scale. 1.
The story of the screenplay for The King’s Speech is almost as interesting as the actual movie. David Seidler wrote the screenplay for The King’s Speech, and the effort won him the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
Seidler, a man who overcame childhood stuttering of his own, became fascinated and inspired with the story of Lionel Logue and George VI. He researched the two extensively in the 1970s and 1980s, hoping to write a creative work. However, Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, wouldn’t allow documents of the treatment to be released during her lifetime. After her death in 2002 at 101, Seidler’s story could continue. The King’s Speech was truly a labor of love.
From a technical side, The King’s Speech is a film that, perhaps more than any other I’ve reviewed, is all about the dialogue. The film is about speaking, after all. Like, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The King’s Speech uses dialogue to drive the story, a method that I’m becoming more and more in love with.
But it’s even more than that, the script is written almost like a 1930s movie, too, full of quick quips and one-liners. The script is funny and full of that famous dry British humor. 1.
Composing the score for The King’s Speech was Alexandre Desplat and the composition earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score.
In keeping with other great Desplat scores, this one is truly a marvel. It’s full of the quirky homages to classical music. One of them is obviously the references to Beethoven throughout the score. In fact, Beethoven is the composer that Logue runs through headphones to help Bertie speak clearly. The score is inspiring and powerful, and I highly encourage anyone to give a listen. Desplat is one of my favorites.
On another note, the film received an Oscar nomination for Best Sound Mixing. 1.
Taking place in 1930s Britain, The King’s Speech is a faithful replica of that era in London and beyond. The film received Oscar nods for Best Art Design and Best Costume Design, losing both to Alice in Wonderland.
For me, the most interesting part of the set design was how much time the film spends inside. This serves a deeper purpose (which I’ll get to below). Rooms of palaces and rooms of apartments are faithfully and meticulously replicated throughout the film. The biggest observation was the wallpaper. Holy wallpaper, Batman. Coupled with great cinematography and lighting, the wallpaper in The King’s Speech jumps off the screen. This simple set detail, art deco wallpaper, is a brilliant use of color and design within the film. 1.
Danny Cohen was the director of photography for The King’s Speech and he received a Best Cinematography nomination for his artistic work. The film also received a nomination for Best Film Editing.
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I love movies that are very artistic. This film overloaded the parts of my brain that love artistry. My eyeballs melted and stained the couch. I’m obviously kidding. Cohen, and director Tom Hooper use the rule of thirds to perfection in almost every single shot. But, more than that, there are many, many shots that show off a simplistic artistry. These normally feature an actor in either the right or left one-third of the frame with nothing but that beautiful wallpaper around them.
Additionally, the cinematography helps us to sympathize with Bertie throughout the film. Cohen used lenses that show a wider angle than normal. This, in turn, distorts the video to our eyes. In short, the picture appears curved. This gives off the impression that we’re stuck in Bertie’s head during the film. Also, the use of small sets, like narrow hallways and elevators, also give us the feeling that we are trapped, just like Bertie. 1.
The King’s Speech was nominated for three acting Oscars: Best Actor for Colin Firth (who actually won it), Best Supporting Actor for Geoffrey Rush, and Best Supporting Actress for Helena Bonham Carter. I’ll focus on Firth and Rush here for the sake of time, but that doesn’t mean that Bonham Carter was bad. She was brilliant as well.
Colin Firth takes the lead in a terrific performance of Albert, Duke of York and later King George VI. Bertie, as he’s called by his family and later Lionel Logue, is a stubborn bull of a man, frustrated by his stammering. His frustration boils over at many points during the film, signalling to me that he’s a very angry man. And maybe he is.
Bertie is constantly tested and belittled by his family and he’s a man that is not understood. He’s not overly friendly to the “common man” and why should he be? He’s in line to be king. But his character arc goes from a stammering, angry man, to a confident one, and that’s thanks to Lionel Logue. His determination is his defining characteristic, and that makes him a great king, stutter or not.
Lionel Logue, an Australian-born speech therapist is played by the Australian-born Geoffrey Rush. Logue, a failed actor and lover of Shakespeare, is a man that exudes confidence in himself, even when some very powerful people oppose him and his methods. He’s not cocky, he just knows his craft, even though he has no actual medical background.
A self-made man, Logue prefers to let his reputation speak for himself. But he’s not soft, either. He’s every bit as determined and stubborn as Bertie and this common thread keeps the two of them together and drives them apart. Logue wants what’s best for Bertie throughout the film, even if that means that he makes Bertie uncomfortable and makes enemies along the way. Logue does not change throughout the film, but that’s okay. He serves as both villain and the stepping-stone for our hero. He’s willing to be both in order to dig deeply into Bertie’s mind. 1.
Tom Hooper won Best Director for The King’s Speech, the only Oscar he’s won thus far. Hooper, a British director, puts on a brilliant display for The King’s Speech.
Perhaps the most obvious theme in The King’s Speech is Bertie’s overcoming of his self-doubt during the film. As I’ve mentioned before, Bertie must do this in order to lead his people. While being a royal man, Bertie is also the everyman. All of us have battles that afflict us and demons that we must overcome. This makes Bertie no different from the rest of us.
Bertie’s ability to guide a nation through war, while also becoming confident in himself, stands alone as a monument to the indomitable, unceasing human spirit. Hitler put Europe in the same precarious position it had been in not three decades earlier. A new generation of Britons and Europeans had to face this threat together. This was truly an extraordinary time.
Faced with the possible annihilation of the free world at the time, Bertie must inspire millions around the globe to fight tyranny and evil. He knows that the world will tick on without him and he must face his destiny and duty sooner rather than later.
This goes back to the vortex that I was talking about earlier. Sometimes, we’re forced to jump into the center of the vortex when we don’t think we’re ready for it. We can’t really swim out once we do. The life around Bertie speeds up at a breakneck pace and he must jump into it, too.
The King’s Speech is a historical drama, yes. It’s also a period piece. But, and most importantly, it’s an intimate and very personal look at a man that had to take the reins of a nation in a time of war and crisis. And that makes this one of the handful of favorites on my list. 1.
I’m giving a bonus point to Helena Bonham Carter. She was excellent. But I’m also giving a point to each the writing and cinematography.
Final Score: 10/10
The King’s Speech won the 83rd Academy Award for Best Picture on February 27, 2011 at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. The film beat out 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, and Winter’s Bone for Best Picture. Steven Spielberg presented the award and it was accepted by Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, and Gareth Unwin, producers. In total, The King’s Speech was the nominated for 12 Oscars, winning four.
Other winners included Natalie Portman winning Best Actress for Black Swan, Christian Bale winning Best Supporting Actor for The Fighter, and Melissa Leo winning Best Supporting Actress for The Fighter. The ceremony was hosted by James Franco and Anne Hathaway. At 28, Hathaway is the youngest host in the history of the ceremony. James Franco was the first host since Paul Hogan to be nominated for Best Original Screenplay and the first host to be up for Best Actor since Michael Caine.
The next few weeks will be a little crazy for me, so I’m taking some time off. My next post will be September 24. At that date, I’ll have my review of A Beautiful Mind. After that, it’s Chariots of Fire, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Moonlight, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, In the Heat of the Night, and Gentlemen’s Agreement.