It's starting to feel like every year we get a high class oh-so-British film about some hapless royal whose personal problems prove that the monarchy and aristocracy is filled with unfortunate, admirable beings who overcome great obstacles to become wise and beneficent rulers. The King’s Speech, so many reviews assured me, was something better, different, more rigorous than the usual run of this genre. It is at least a step up from 2009’s utterly shapeless The Young Victoria, but that’s about all. The King’s Speech is in most essentials a remake of The Madness of King George (1995), simply shifted in epoch and visual texture from Enlightenment gilt to Depression drab. Royal has personal difficulty that despoils noble bearing. Royal seeks out treatment, gets it in the form of bossy levelling commoner savant who cures his ills. Incongruous hijinks ensue. The King’s Speech presents an interesting spectacle in so much as it encompasses a time that is still well within living memory – after all, current Queen Elizabeth II is a character in the film, as a young girl – but which is also fast becoming mythological. That is the time when Britain surrendered its imperial lustre and rigidity for the one-for-all Herculean struggle of the Second World War. This film tries to tie that evolution to its central character, Albert Frederick Arthur George, or “Bertie” (Colin Firth) as he’s known to family and, after some hesitation, to Lionel Logue, the struggling Australian speech therapist and former ham actor (Geoffrey Rush, appropriately cast; he also co-produced).
Bertie is presented as something of an unfortunate, rather common failed result of the stern, emotionally and physically distant taskmaster’s upbringing so favoured in the higher reaches of British life in the high Victorian era. He’s afflicted with a stammer so severe that he can barely utter a few words in public, a problem obviously bound up with his almost torturous repression of a simmering resentment of his patronising playboy brother David (Guy Pearce), soon to be Edward VIII, his demanding father George V (Michael Gambon), rigid Victorian matriarch Queen Mary (Claire Bloom), and sundry others involved in his upbringing. Bertie had it better than his epileptic younger brother, who was kept entirely under wraps before dying at 13. At the time the large psychological component in his affliction was little perceived, and Bertie’s become fed up with the constant parade of pompous therapists his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, as admirable and under-utilised as ever). In a last ditch attempt – aren’t they always? – she takes him to see Logue, whose seamy offices and insistence on total equality in the therapeutic environment initially ruffles feathers. But when Logue provides Bertie with clear evidence that he can be made to speak perfectly normally when he can’t hear himself, Bertie comes back and begins Logue’s laborious physical and mental regimen.
There’s a message contained in the subject matter here that earns a level of respect and interest going into the film. Speech disorders, often a painful affliction for those who suffer from them, are so often the butt of humour and contempt in society that making a film about a man of prestige having to overcome it, like any handicap, in order to become a warrior-king, is as strong a real-life vehicle to explore it as any you’re likely to get. But The King’s Speech first got me offside by introducing Logue with the archest of touches to suggest vulgarity clashing with gentility – emerging from the lavatory with the resounding gurgling of the just-flushed toilet, to shake hands with the prince. Things don’t get much more sophisticated from there, as the usual mechanics of this kind of drama are obeyed with stultifying care: hackles levitate as presumptions and barriers are punctured, and Bertie engages in oh-so-hilarious acts like swearing and singing his statements in order to make them easier to say. This is the high-class version of movies where small kids and grannies swear. There’s also a power montage in which Bertie, amongst other things, practices breathing with Elizabeth sitting on his chest. It’s a wonder Hooper doesn’t cut to him running up the side of a mountain and punch the air in triumph.
The King’s Speech is one of those movies that pretends to be nuanced and stirring, but is actually cheaply reductive about the complexities of both its era and the milieu its set in. I don’t mind a reasonable level of dramatic licence in historical dramas. But here we’ve got Bertie first consulting Logue in a seamy rat’s nest of an office in London in 1934, with the constant suggestion that he’s doing it because he subliminally senses he’s going to have to be king, when the prince actually first consulted Logue before giving a successful speech in Australia in 1927. In order to work in the cheaply rah-rah fashion it’s chosen, the film has to vilify, in turn, George V (who bellows at his 40-ish son, “Get it out boy!”), and then David, in spite of pre-avowed closeness to his brother, turns into a contemptuous mocker when the film needs a shot of insensitivity to react against. This isn’t licence; this is downright licentious. The film asks the audience to get off on the spectacle, when Bertie and Elisabeth visiting the Logues’ house, with Logue’s wife Myrtle (Jennifer Ehle, wasted) gobsmacked by the visitation and Elisabeth all reassuringly chipper, of royalty sitting in the parlour to drink tea and play nice with the commoners, but also internalises the studious distaste for Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) the future king and queen possessed, and Pearce plays David/Edward as the queeniest of public school prefects. When the elder king dies, David turns and tries to weep on Mary’s bewildered, unresponsive shoulder, in a scene that’s damnably odd not because it seeks to portray the jarring dissonance between natural and socially dictated response, but because it’s also presented as evidence that David’s a dangerously unstable and emotionally unreliable person. Princesses Elizabeth (Freya Wilson) and Margaret (Ramona Marquez) act exactly according to popular lore, Elizabeth solemn, Margaret gushing.
Excruciating efforts to push Derek Jacobi’s blustering incarnation of the Archbishop Cosmo Lang as another nominal villain, looking down his nose at Logue and trying to boss the King around, go nowhere, and the clunkingly obvious Screenwriting 101 introduction of late conflict in the film, in which the King berates Logue for his semi-hidden lack of credentials, whilst they’re rehearsing for his coronation, proves merely a hurdle Logue clears with disingenuous simplicity. Playing Winston Churchill has taken over from King Lear as the career emeritus touchstone for finally respectable actors; in the last few years Bob Hoskins, Albert Finney, Brendan Gleeson, Ian McNeice, Rod Taylor, and Simon Russell Beale have variously taken whacks at that gruff drawl, and here Timothy Spall has his go, playing the hero in waiting who helps shepherd the rechristened George VI. As lines of dialogue like “Churchill was right!” ring out with the thud of lead on wood, Spall drones and perambulates in the most cartoonish of caricatures, and the ironic disparity between the Great Speechifier and the stammering prince doesn’t gain traction because Churchill’s inclusion in scenes he shouldn’t be anywhere near constantly drags the film close to historical diorama. On the other hand, Anthony Andrews, appearing as Stanley Baldwin, is a welcome face even in a drizzly role.
The serious disappointment here is that there’s a stronger interpersonal film crying out to have time to breathe. Bertie’s genuine sources of anger and anguish are teasingly explored when he finally gets a bit tiddly with Logue after his father dies, but this element skirts by as the shallowest kind of TV therapy confessional. Firth’s performance does carry the real grit and heft of someone downright furious with all the physically and decorum-induced problems he has in dealing with the world, stiff-necked and often surly at first because of his constant frustration, and even more than Tom Ford’s lousy A Single Man (2009), the film both shows off and is sustained by Firth’s mid-career emergence as one of the gamest leading men around. Rush keeps pace with a performance that is for the most part wittily theatrical. Director Tom Hooper has done good TV work (Longford, 2006, John Adams, 2008) and started in feature films with 2004’s Red Dust. But his efforts here never rise above the most obvious efforts of cinematic embroidery, offering constant, hammy close-ups of mouths and point-of-view shots to suggest oppressive anxiety, and gimmicky, unrealistic storytelling hooks. Early on, Logue gets Bertie to read the “To be or not to be” soliloquy into a recording device whilst listening to music, which proves to allow him to speak flawlessly. But it can’t play out so simply as to have Logue explain to Bertie how what he’s going to do will work, oh no; Logue has to play the magician taunting the disbeliever into his game, and Bertie stomps out after reading a few lines with the record not listened to, and only thrown on the turntable a couple of scenes later in a fit of pique, all so that the moment of realisation can be sold in the most dramatic, yet absurd, fashion. Later, Hooper builds with symphonic (literally – Beethoven’s 7th bombards the soundtrack) intensity to a scene of majestic flimflam: the king has to read a speech, in a private booth with Logue coaching him, explaining the British Empire’s entry into the war with Germany, staged as if it’s the Battles of Stalingrad and El Alamein rolled into one. It’s so mind-numbingly corny a climax that you wonder if you’ve stumbled into a send-up by mistake, as Hooper drowns out any simple admiration of human accomplishment and the dread import of the actual message in promoting his own Oscar-hungry bombast.