“The King’s Speech” is a remarkable movie about a remarkable friendship. It honors the audience’s intelligence, which makes it a double rarity.
The friendship that painstakingly evolves is between Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a frustrated Austalian actor turned highly unorthodox speech therapist. Albert, who has a dreadful stammer, has failed all previous medical interventions and vows never to try another.
Only the ministrations of his wife, Elizabeth, (a marvelous Helena Bonham Carter) bring him to Lionel, who, believing emotional intimacy is curative, insists on addressing the rankled Prince as “Bertie,” the family nickname. "My game, my turf, my rules,” he states flatly.
Among many other good things, “The King’s Speech,” directed by Tom Hooper (HBO’s “John Adams”) and written by David Seidler, is a meditation on a transitional time when royalty was expected to speak to the nation and not just pose commandingly before it.
Albert, son of King George V (Michael Gambon), believed he was protected from the humiliations of public oration because his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) was in succession. But when Edward, as king, abdicates to marry American socialite Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), Albert is reluctantly enthroned.
Prior to this, Albert and Lionel had achieved an uneasy alliance which breaks apart after Lionel suggests “Bertie” is his brother’s better. What was intended as inspirational is received by Albert as the impertinence of a “nobody.” (It’s a heartbreaking scene.) Their ultimate reconciliation, which is as sensitively rendered as the fine-drawn gradations of friendship preceding it, is the heart of the movie.
It is Lionel’s belief that Albert, whom he regards as “the bravest man I know,” could be a wonderful king. On the evidence available to him, this might seem like a stretch – Albert’s bravery, after all, is essentially confined to eradicating his stammer, and we never hear him discuss statesmanship, about which he seems adamantly uninterested.
But the conceit works because the filmmakers, like Lionel, regard Albert in his totality. He’s not King George VI, he’s a man. This is one of the very few films that plumb the psychological resonances of royalty instead of merely illustrating them. Firth is tremendously touching in the role without even once condescending to the audience. It would have been easy to sentimentalize Albert into a common-man-under-the-skin. But Firth gives us instead a portrait of a nowhere man suddenly thrust onto the world stage. His aloneness is palpable.
When asked by Lionel if he was ever close to anyone growing up, Albert speaks of his nannies. With his own daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, Albert, in his own guarded way, is the parent he probably wished he had. There’s a wonderful scene where he tells them a story about a penguin, and he seems to be regressing at that moment into an idyllic fantasy of what his own childhood might have been like. (He also doesn’t stammer as much with them.)
Albert also has a gravely humorous side. When Lionel, in an early scene, asks him if he knows any jokes, he answers that “timing isn’t my strong suit.” He watches Hitler fulminate in a newsreel and can’t help but comment that the man certainly can speak. Albert sees through the pretensions of kingship even as he is impelled to enact them. “We’re not a family, we’re a firm,” he says of his family. “We’ve become actors.”
Lionel is also a species of actor, and even though the film rather too neatly points up the correspondence between these two men, it makes emotional sense. Lionel, in the end, sees Albert as a performer who is capable not only of becoming the role he has inherited, but glorifying it.
This is how Lionel sees himself, too. When he auditions, early on, for the title role in a low-rent production of “Richard III,” he may be dreadful but the theatrical commitment is intense. Geoffrey Rush is such an imaginative actor that he can encompass this man’s entire conflicted make-up – the ambition, humility, obstinacy, sadness – in a single brief scene. Because he is capable of fully entering into another man’s psyche, Lionel comprehends Albert the way an artist might. As Albert’s speech therapist, Lionel is the great artist he never was as an actor.
The film concludes with the 1939 radio broadcast in which the stalwart, terrified King George VI, with Lionel alone by his side in a closed-off room, addresses Britain as it enters into war with Germany. This speech – a cliffhanger and a culmination – is what the entire movie has been incrementally leading up to. “Say it to me as a friend,” Lionel counsels Albert, and the words fall into place with the finality of a great truth. Grade: A (Rated R for some language.)