In all honesty, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this movie before seeing it. I don’t watch a lot of historical drama, and I’m not into the whole Merchant Ivory oeuvre.
But this film isn’t just any historical, nor is it too stuffy by virtue of its royal subject.
Prince Albert, Duke of York, and son of King George V (played with a fantastic combination of passion and restraint by Colin Firth), starts off the movie making a speech at Wembley Stadium—where his stammered words echo mercilessly about the crowd. The pain of witnessing this opening brings home the Big Problem the prince must overcome before he can (eventually) succeed his father.
Albert (or Bertie, as his family calls him) has pretty much thrown in the towel on fixing his affliction. It’s his wife, Elizabeth (also played with a perfect combination of warmth and regal bearing by Helena Bonham Carter), who procures the help of an unorthodox speech therapist, an Australian import named Lionel Logue (played by the awesome Geoffrey Rush), who (among other things) insists on calling the prince Bertie as part of his treatment regimen. The prince is unconvinced that this Aussie can do anything for him. Until Lionel has Bertie recite Hamlet’s Soliloquy while listening to classical music through headphones. Lionel records the result and guess what? Bertie does a perfect recitation. Not a single stumbled syllable.
Meanwhile, George V (played by Michael Gambon, all too briefly) extols the virtues of this new-fangled contraption called radio that’ll bring the royal family closer to the people. This only puts more pressure on Bertie. However, he isn’t the eldest son, so—whew!—he gets a reprieve. A temporary one.
When the eldest son, David (played by the wonderful Guy Pearce) (think they rounded up enough star power?) ascends to the throne as Edward VIII, he creates a constitutional crisis by being engaged to an American socialite divorcee, Wallis Simpson. As King Edward, he’s barred from marrying the woman, who it would seem is en route to her second divorce and neither ex-hubby is dead. Since he’s not giving her up, so much for King Edward.
Ultimately, Bertie must rise to the occasion and face his Big Problem head-on while taking his brother’s place as King George VI.
What makes this movie so fantastic goes beyond the stellar cast and the inherent drama in the situation. Or even the fact that it’s based on true events. The characters and plot are rich with subcontext relating to family, patriotic duty, class distinctions, and societal expectations, but the real heart of the film is the relationship between therapist and patient.
This relationship drives the narrative. Between bouts of frustration on each side, Lionel learns to connect with his high-class client in ways both unexpected and humorous. And—even though it takes a while—Bertie eventually warms to Lionel’s unconventional ways. There is also warmth in the tortured character’s dealings with Elizabeth and his two daughters. When he’s with them, Bertie’s stammer seems to vanish. And he so obviously adores them.
It’s also a tribute to all the film’s creative talent that the ending puts the viewer on pins and needles when the new King George VI must give a rousing broadcast declaration of war with Nazi Germany, even as he feels unprepared to do so. I’d be lying if I said my eyes didn’t well a bit.
I have to throw in a mention of Timothy Spall’s performance as Winston Churchill, who confesses to Bertie right before the big speech that he used to stammer. It is one of many humanizing moments that make this movie so great.
If the final speech doesn’t create a lump in your throat, the title card before the credits roll should do the honors.