From bumbling hesitancy to majestic articulacy, Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech exuberantly charts the rise of the man who would be king.
Stiff Upper Lip by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
If ever there was a referendum on the dissolution of the monarchy, The King’s Speech would be broadcast the night before to remind us all how lovable the royal family are. Forget what you think you know, Edward’s affair with American divorcee Wallis Simpson wasn’t a love marriage, rather the overzealous remonstration of an overemotional dandy playboy. The palaces aren’t staid, but elegantly Georgian – tastefully upholstered in sumptuous silks of ivory, taupe and antique gold. And even the true-blue Queen Mother and timorous George VI come alive under Tom Hooper’s humanising touch and the spry performances of Helena Bonham-Carter, Colin Firth, with Geoffrey Rush by royal appointment as antipodean speech therapist Lionel Logue. It’s unapologetically monarchist, but sparklingly refreshing for it.
Following on from The Damned United, with mocking bird Michael Sheen as Brian Clough, Tom Hooper certainly has a penchant for mimicry. The King’s Speech is a who’s who of parodic cameos; Timothy Spall as jowly Winston Churchill, Michael Gambon as gruff King George V and Guy Pearce a feckless King Edward VIII. With so much parrotry to amuse the bouche, the real story of His Royal Highness Prince Albert of York learning to speak without a stammer shines like a dark star. For, with all its gilt trappings and royalist filigree, The King’s Speech is in essence the simple story of an unlikely friendship between a prince and his speech therapist and how finding his voice gives the man the courage to become a king.
Public speaking is bread and butter for a royal, but the birth of radio brought a whole new trauma to stuttering princes everywhere, amplifying audiences from an immediate entourage of hundreds to millions of listeners all around the globe. It’s an awkward twist of fate that throws Prince Albert off-balance as he makes his inaugural speech at Wembley’s British Empire Exhibition in 1925, stammering halteringly through every fricative and plosive. Colin Firth’s performance is superbly timed and painful – perhaps for no-one more so than adoring “fat Scottish cook” wife Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, played with cocksure elegance by Helena Bonham-Carter. But it’s a debilitation that can’t help but reduce the prince to B-B-Bertie, the boy statesman.
After an exhausting pageant of mountebank marble-chewers, the adventurous Duchess of York sets off on a rare sortie from the palace to find the unconventional Lionel Logue of Harley Street. Bunkered in a dilapidated, underground drawing room (it’s fun just to watch the royal couple figure out the lift gate), the autodidact speech therapist, who cut his teeth treating traumatised Tommies during the Great War, is not quite the King’s cup of tea. He’s unorthodox, overly familiar and relentlessly plucky. And addressing the royal prince as Bertie, rolling him on the floor or goading him into dockside swearing, Lionel’s brutal honesty and sheer informality makes him the prince’s equal.
It’s not just Her Royal Highness bobbing up and down on her husband during diaphragm exercises that makes him uncomfortable, Prince Albert’s meeting with the common man is awkwardly irreverent. Spared the comforting shields of retinue and ritual, he’s forced to open up. And it’s only through unburying the anxious child within that he is finally able to give voice to the man. The burgeoning friendship between protégé and mentor provides the central relationship of The King’s Speech and it’s a tempestuous one. Attempting to make the man a king, Lionel presses one button too treasonous and the prince takes umbrage in a fit of royal pique. And it’s not until the coronation that Bertie comes crawling charmingly back, Lionel by his side for all of King George VI’s wartime speeches.
Under Hooper’s lens, Prince Albert is the most natural heir to the throne. Unlike his elder brother, the fly-by-night, sentimental Edward, the Duke of York is a statesman through and through. He continues his father’s legacy not only in name, but through the Christmas broadcast tradition of the King’s speech. His well-mannered daughters are perhaps too anodyne (through fear of the Tower) but it’s clear he’s the righteous heir, the only one gutsy enough to stand up to Hitler’s menace. In fact, the whole idea behind The King’s Speech and his vocal empowerment is to expound the king as a blitz-time beacon of wireless resistance. There’s an undeniable whiff of retrospective caricature and reductio ad Hitlerum(only he could resist the Nazis) but it’s largely thanks to Firth that the king and his foibles come right divinely to life.
In cinematic terms, The King’s Speech is like The Damned United‘s more stylish younger brother. The set design, photography and costumes are unrelentingly dazzling, turning lacklustre crinolines into muted mauve mousselines de soie. And this alchemising touch isn’t all Edwardiana. Hooper’s cinematography is asymmetrically modern, continuously framing his characters at the bottom of the screen – conferring upon them the towering weight of history, almost daring them to seize the sceptre centre-screen. His high-headroom low-angles are complemented by Logue’s post-industrial shabby chic office, the paint peeling off walls like a Vogue photoshoot backdrop. It’s stylish, perhaps overly decorous. And while there may be precious few conclusions to linger over, The King’s Speech is beautiful and right royal entertainment.
The King’s Speech is released in the UK on 7th January 2011