Royalty remade by a king’s battle

2011-02-28 00:00

COLIN Firth has made a career of playing a certain type of restrained Englishman — quiet, dignified, a bit stuffy, but simmering underneath. Think Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary (a bit of a joke that he brought off with aplomb), to last year’s George Falconer in A Single Man, for which he was also Oscar-nominated. These reach their peak in the character of King George VI.

He was the king who saw Britain through World War 2, whose calm refusal to leave London at the height of the Blitz comforted many terrified people, and whose speeches showed the world a certain very English resolve.

But all this was the result of extraordinary struggle on his part.

“Bertie” (his first name was Albert) was not born to be king: that was the job of his older brother. In this context, his terrible stutter could be endured, albeit under the teasing of brother David (played here by Guy Pearce) and the censure of his stern father King George V (Michael Gambon). However, as the 1930s progressed, it became clear that kingship might be thrust upon him, and even if it were not, royalty was being forced to step into the public eye, and crucially, the public ear, as never before. Previously, all a king had to do, was to “look good in a uniform and not fall off his horse”. Now, the miracle of radio meant that a king’s subjects could hear him speak, and expected him to do so.

The film opens with a terrible failure: Bertie is sent to read a speech on behalf of the king at the closing of the Empire Exhibition. A packed Wembley stadium and, via radio, the whole Empire, wait for his words. Which hardly emerge, strangled by his speech impediment. It closes with a triumph, the king’s speech at the beginning of war, preparing the Empire for what lay ahead.

Between the two lies a struggle for a cure, led by his wife, Elizabeth, the woman we remember as “the Queen Mum” (Helena Bonham Carter). Finally, after a series of hopeless attempts, she finds Lionel Logue, an unconventional Australian speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush). He is certain he can succeed where others have failed, but he insists on candour, complete trust and equality, not things royals were accustomed to allowing.

Here the poignancy of the royal condition is revealed. Bertie has never been intimately acquainted with anyone outside his family. And that family isn’t a very warm place to be. The person he was closest to, he finally tells Logue, was his nanny.

The King’s Speech is not just the story of one man overcoming a stutter, it is the story of the period in which British royalty was forced to remake itself from remote icons required only to smile and wave, into people required to meet their subjects and live in the public arena. King George V realised this was coming, but only in George VI’s time did it truly occur. And Bertie is very well aware of what lies ahead, as it becomes clearer that he will have to ascend the throne. A consequence of the growing modernity is Edward VIII’s refusal to do as monarchs throughout history had done and keep Wallis Simpson as his mistress. His insistence that he should be able to marry the woman he loves means he cannot remain king (and head of the Church of England). And so Bertie, with his far greater sense of duty and royal propriety, has to put aside his own reluctance and fight to overcome his handicap.

His triumph makes him, Logue tells him, “the bravest man I know”.

Firth’s performance is also brave, revealing in intimate, moving detail the pain and anger of the situation. It’s flashier than last year’s single man, mourning alone for the man he loved. Will he win an Oscar? It’s certainly a worthy turn. You’ll know by the time you read this. He is bolstered by an excellent cast, with Rush making Logue complex and warm, Bonham Carter understated and a who’s who of British talent filling the support roles. But The King’s Speech isn’t just great performances, it’s a compelling look at a vanished world of restraint, dignity and quiet suffering.

*****

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