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The King’s Speech movie review: addictively entertaining historical fiction

The King's Speech

see itSet during the 1930s, when the British royal family were slowly making peace with the realization that the monarchy was no longer about ruling and governance but about stage managing media representations, The King’s Speech is the story of King George VI’s transition from a blubbering stutter-stricken wreck to a smooth spokesperson for the throne.

Not long into director Tom Hooper’s feel good slice of historical fiction Michael Gambon as King George V enunciates an impassioned spiel about how the royal family can’t pass policy, can’t govern, and that the media – particularly the strange beast called the wireless – has recast them as a group of actors.

Battling unsuccessfully against a stutter that has haunted him since childhood, Prince Albert aka Bertie (Colin Firth) isn’t exactly proficient in the family’s new trade, and after trying every technique at his considerable disposal he arrives desperate and flummoxed at the door of Australian Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).

Logue is a speech therapist with unconventional techniques in the mould of, say, Robin Williams’ think-outside-the-box teacher in Dead Poets Society – the person who can get results without so much as flicking through a textbook. After the shock of being exposed to his new teacher’s approach Prince Albert – Bertie, as Logue insists he will be addressed – is compelled to stay. The patient/psychologist, teacher/student plotline runs parallel to that of Albert’s ascension to the throne due to a scandalous marriage perused by his brother Edward VIII (Guy Pearce).

Watch Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth gobble up the running time with two greedily captivating but seemingly effortlessly rendered performances that fill out screenwriter David Seidler’s characterisations with the charisma and commanding presence of two actors at the top of their game. Firth completely convinces in his depiction of Bertie’s speech impediment and, more importantly, the balance needed to present his character’s conflicting mixture of inhibitions and bravery.

Rush relishes his role as the cocky bastard who plays his own game, dances to his own beat, and pries open the gates to Albert’s redemption through a charismatic branding of smug benevolence. The King’s Speech boasts the most effective pairing of screen actors this year, and if the words “Oscar worthy” actually meant anything – in the shadow of Sandra Bullock’s win for The Blind Side last year, we are reminded they mean very little – those words would apply unequivocally to these addictively entertaining performances.

The dramatic momentum in The King’s Speech flows far too fluidly for it to be bought in the context of historical veracity as anything other than “inspired by.” Hooper suavely and cleanly fulfils the dramatic rhythms required for interesting storytelling, a telltale sign that liberties have been taken, truth stretched. However, it’s a fool – or a person destined for disappointment upon disappointment – who measures individual scenes in recreations such as this against historical knowledge to determine artistic worthiness.

Adapting a “true” story has never been about being faithful to facts, per se; the genius lies in taking fiction and finding ways to make it truthful. This often manifests in broad strokes and emotional messages, and The King’s Speech demonstrates its brilliance in these departments in a tent pole moment in which Firth’s character, a king cursed with a most undignified of afflictions, musters up the courage to articulate an all-important declaration of WWII address to the people of Britain. We feel the gravity of the moment, not for its external ramifications – talk of a war that led to the death of millions of people – but for its personal significance in the life of one man who simply managed to spit it out.

The King’s Speech’s Australian theatrical release date: December 26, 2010.

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  • 1
    Angra
    Posted December 28, 2010 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Luke – its a great film and all hail Geoffrey Rush – probably the greatest Australian actor.

    But I think your first paragraph is a bit misleading. British monarchs knew their time of direct political interference was over after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (after a long line of events going back to Magna Carta). Since then the strongest interference was when Queen Victoria complained about Gladstone speaking to her ‘as if he were addressing a public meeting’. No one seriously thinks the monarchs have had illusions of political power for over 200 years.

    Victoria was one of the masters of royal PR – ably coached by Mr Disraeli. She is greatly underestimated.

    Edward VIII had no illusions about this, and chose personal happiness over fantasies of power. Good luck to him. George VI was maybe weaker, but at least stood up to the crease, after being pushed and bullied by Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.

    The Queen mum’s role in all of this is not acknowledged.

    Liz is in Victoria’s tradition, and is probably the last of the great monarchs.

  • 2
    David
    Posted December 30, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    We feel the gravity of the moment, not for its external ramifications – talk of a war that led to the death of millions of people – but for its personal significance in the life of one man who simply managed to spit it out.

    And that is what the film is all about, the man, his speech problems and his tutor.
    Luke I may be wrong, I got the impression you watched the movie hoping for a history lesson. You never say if you were actually entertained and the film was good, bad or indifferent.
    @angra..your last line [Liz is in Victoria’s tradition, and is probably the last of the great monarchs.] is a worthy tribute to her reign.

  • 3
    freecountry
    Posted December 31, 2010 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Actually George VI was far more than an “actor”, and it’s a pity the film missed the opportunity to show this.

    According to William Stevenson in “A Man Called Intrepid” (1976), the monarch retains a little-known role as the commander of the British secret services. Stevenson explains the purpose of this archaism is to ensure the integrity of a service whose activities cannot safely be made responsible to Parliament, so it has a dual accountability both to the responsible Executive (Cabinet) and to the formal Executive (the King).

    The importance of this at the time was that during Chamberlain’s appeasement practices towards Hit-ler, Churchill and others were busy making secret preparations for a real war and setting up cross-Atlantic operations secretly with Roosevelt. The spooks could not realistically report to Chamberlain, and to go behind the back of all state command would be to commit treason. So they reported to King George VI.

    Stevenson reports that George VI was an effective commander, who unlike Chamberlain understood the true dangers facing the free world and was capable of making risky decisions.

    When Churchill took power, the spooks were able to go back to reporting to Cabinet. But Churchill continued to work closely with the King. He anticipated possible defeat in the coming Battle of Britain, and a point where the Germans would enter Westminster and force His Majesty’s Government formally to capitulate. At this point, anyone taking part in a Resistance would become technically traitors at law — unless His Majesty himself never gave royal consent to the capitulation.

    The King had decided early on — at a time when many people still thought Hit-ler was the best thing since sliced bread — that if the Germans successfully invaded and subdued the Westminster government, he himself would not surrender, would not collaborate, and would not go into exile. Plans were made for him to remain in hiding in the UK and to take formal command of the underground resistance at home. “The Germans would shoot them as traitors anyway,” Churchill is reported to have said, “but the important thing is that they should not feel like traitors.”

    Publicly, the King and Queen remained in London throughout the bombing and shared in the rationing of food and other necessities. They kept making surprise appearances at the sites of bombed buildings to comfort the survivors, and at other places and times to mix with civilians and boost morale. The Brits loved them and gained courage from them.

    It would be interesting if some of this could be put into a sequel.

  • 4
    Posted January 2, 2011 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    What a great review.

    And a wonderful piece of entertainment. Simply, it charms you senseless. Not forgetting Helena Bonham Carter, who is similarly effortlessly captivating, the three of them could charm the socks off a wooden dog. Errr…or something…

  • 5
    gazman
    Posted January 2, 2011 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    This is a very fine film with a good script, anchored by two exceptional performances from Firth and Rush. It’s so refreshing to see a film which is substantial, moving, without violence and absent of trendy movie making techniques. The story is told the old fashion way and for that the director, Tom Hooper, should be complimented. Firth is in line for an Oscar nod, which doesn’t surprise as many characterisation of disabled people tend to do. In this case, he deserves all the praise he is getting.

  • 6
    HB
    Posted January 4, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    The rest of the cast was pretty classy too – as well as Bonham-Carter, Gambon and Pearce, Claire Bloom, Derek Jacobi (the quintessential speech impediment sufferer as Claudius), Jennifer Ehle in a (very small) role. A good story – pretty well told and enormously popular at my local.

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