Of all we know about Hitler, there is one initial reel of data, one profile picture in our minds when we think of his character: at the podium with his vigorous gestures and his charismatic diction of the already assertive Germanic tongue.
It was a time in media where political address was, more or less, the only real viral. In the radio days, when young, draft-qualified men, their sweethearts and mommas and hard-working fathers, all clustered before a crackling stereo to hear, over the wavelength, what it would mean to be virtuous, where one could find hope and how each of them would come to define themselves under the circumstances.
It’s into this era, where politicians became performers of the people’s conviction, that the stammer-prone George VI—impromptu heir to the English crown and to an empire that, at the time, accounted for a quarter of the global populace—was summoned to be a voice in a war-bound world. An unnerving position.
“The King’s Speech” seizes the drama of his impediment so articulately.
In the opening scene, the soon-to-be-king Albert (Colin Firth) stands before a microphone in the stoop of a dank, fogged stadium trying to clear the air in his throat, trying to deliver his words. The equestriennes stand solemnly, aligned in the field’s center, one horse giving an ill-timed gruff to interrupt the sputtering English noble. A red light, indicating that the BBC broadcast was live, glares threateningly. His words are never formed.
This is the first staging of what is the film’s main antagonism: Albert’s monologues, in which there is suspense at every broken, attempted word. The thrill in this risky center is Firth’s performance: his quivering lip, the frustration under his eyes, his tensed muscular frame and his fragmented delivery make the role painfully convincing.
Of course, this disability is set against the character’s otherwise proficient personality. He is well- read, well-versed in English manners and dignified. In an older era, where the English hierarchy was veiled from the public appearance, he’d have been a model stand-in.
In the second scene, he is treated by what is supposedly the last in a long line of therapists and a variety of procedures—for instance, he’s made to do a kind of “chubby bunny” routine, only with marbles. But each method proves unsuccessful, and he’s left to smoking cigarettes to ease his outworn patience.
If not for his strong-willed wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), who anticipates an increase in his speaking demands and latent public disgrace, he might have given up. In fact, to find the aid that is ultimately of any help, she must travel to a ramshackle district of London.
Logue (Geoffrey Rush), the eccentric, low-class Australian whom Albert reluctantly comes to consult, uses some so-called “controversial” methods. In his seemingly impulsive program, he prompts a series of speech-improving exercises. In one, Albert is made to read Shakespeare while wearing a headset that plays classical music at full volume and does not allow him to hear himself. Other times, he must sing his lines. And in another practice, he utters a hilarious strand of foul language to give his pronunciations a bit more feistiness.
More importantly, though, is Logue’s insistence that they be treated as equals: that they call each other by name rather than status; that they meet in his thrifty, grungy, unfurnished office rather than at a royal estate; and that “Bertie” tells him parts of his personal life as a friend would—a somewhat profane relationship by the terms of monarchical etiquette. He even takes it further in some cases: for instance, by sitting, shrugged, on the throne seat. It’s important to be open, he says, because a stutter is a developed trait, not an inborn one.
His irreverence proves rehabilitating, as Bertie comes to realize that it is the collective weight of expectations—from his father, in competitiveness to his brother, in the halls of a statured royal lineage—that has taken away his voice, and essentially his personhood.
These themes of collaboration, equality and humility are continued from Tom Hooper’s last directed film, “The Damned United.” There, a smug, crass soccer manager forgets his dependence on his recruiter.
While “United” is worth seeing on its own merits, “King’s Speech” vitalizes the aforementioned ideas with its historical context: here is a world that needed a leader that had encountered his people, especially the lowliest. And his ultimate confidence in self comes from the confidante of persons, not tiered ordering.
In this sense, the film is consistent even in its aesthetic choices. For being mostly domestic, the sets are less decorous than you’d expect from the typical historical drama. Instead, many scenes have as their backdrop a grungy, if vibrantly decayed, palette. Logue’s office is especially sparse in its furnishings. But the realness of it makes it all the more lovely.
In the final moments, Bertie does something similar with the brokenness of his voice; rather than form a distracting decomposition, the space between his words has a sort of dignified eloquence.
“The King’s Speech” will be in contest with “The Social Network” for Best Picture—they are the two most likely to be recognized by the Academy, and are probably the best films.
I find their reciprocity riveting. Fincher’s “Social Network” couldn’t be any more modern in subject matter or in theme—that is, though our generation can create networks and vast mediums for interaction, it is at a loss for what to say and for the self. It’s a story that seems most real.
“The King’s Speech,” on the other hand, recalls a more romantic time when there were listening ears, when the self existed in more than a digitized form and mattered. If it’s an ideal vision for the future, it’s at least a comforting one: Is there something on the tip of your tongue? Say it.