The Nightmare Before Kingship

film_kingshipsRoyal prince vs. stammer in masterful ‘King’s Speech

If a Who’s Who of Splendid British Thespians digging into a juicy true story of Royals in conflict is not your cup of tea, best steer clear of The King’s Speech. But if you’re looking for a  gorgeously mounted entertainment, a compelling history lesson, a wry comedy of manners, or just a jolly game of Name That Actor, prepare to gobble down this tasty and rewarding holiday treat about an accidental monarch thrust into the limelight, struggling to conquer a private affliction that makes his public life a nightmare.

Directed by Tom Hooper (his last film was the excellent soccer drama, The Damned United), from a witty script by David Seidler, The King’s Speech concerns the royal English prince soon to be known to the world as George VI (and father of the current Queen Elizabeth). An unexpected heir to the throne, destined to lead his people through the ravages of World War II, all that stood between George and greatness was a crippling stammer that made it virtually impossible for him to speak in public.

Colin Firth queues up for his next Oscar nomination with a formidable performance as king-to-be Albert Frederick Arthur George (“Bertie” to his intimates). Duke of York, grandson of Victoria, son of the current King George V, and second in line after older brother Edward, Bertie is happy to concede the spotlight to more alpha males in the royal clan. Retired from the Navy, he lives quietly with his loyal, loving wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), and their daughters, the little princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

But it’s the mid-1920s; the new medium of radio is sweeping the continent, and royals are required to deliver speeches to their people, live and over the air—which stuttering Bertie is physically unable to do. (An opening scene where he struggles to squeeze out words at a public exhibition is torturously intense, for Bertie and his audience.) Quack remedies (smoking, to “relax the larynx;” filling the mouth with marbles) fail to solve the problem, so Elizabeth turns to eccentric elocution therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).

Australian-born Logue has his own way of doing things. The scene where he and Bertie first size each other up (after Elizabeth has brought her husband there, incognito) sets the tone for both the power struggle and deep friendship to come. Bertie’s droll sense of humor (often masked by his inability to voice it) finds a kindred spirit in unorthodox, blithely unpretentious Logue. The therapist wins the royals’ trust, agreeing to focus on the “mechanical difficulties” of Bertie’s speech, but better progress is made as Bertie begins to reveal his complex emotional relationships to his family, and his royal duties. All of which become even more acute after the death of old George V (a blustery, yet poignant cameo by Michael Gambon), and the abdication of jet-setting Edward (Guy Pearce) to marry his scandalous Mrs. Simpson—placing Bertie on the throne of England.

The film deftly portrays the evolving media of the day; along with newfangled elevators and motorcars, aeroplanes, recording devices, newsreels and “wireless” radio are shrinking the globe, ushering in a new age of communication. George V huffs that monarchs are forced to become “actors … invading people’s homes.” With the buffer of physical distance between a king and subjects thus bridged, a confident public persona is a crucial part of leadership. With no way out of his job (Elizabeth compares it to “Indentured servitude”), Bertie’s ability to govern, as well as the fate of the nation, depend on a cure.

Yet the story’s small human details are the most engaging: the robust partnership of Bertie and Elizabeth (and the warmth of their family life); the marvelous aplomb of Logue’s wife (Jennifer Ehle) when she discovers Their Majesties in her kitchen for tea. The script percolates with empathy and wit; it may seem like a cheap laugh when Logue induces singing and swearing to loosen the prince’s tongue, but Firth and Rush are so masterful at both film_kingspeechcomedy and subtext, these are virtuoso scenes. And with everyone from Derek Jacobi (as a meddling Archbishop) to Timothy Spall (as a ruminating Winston Churchill) popping up in supporting roles, this is an impressive royal feast of a film.


★★★1/2 (out of four)

With Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter. Written by David Seidler. Directed by Tom Hooper. A Weinstein release. Rated R. 118 minutes.


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