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The King’s Speech

All-star cast depicts British monarch mastering a disability

Dec. 21, 2010
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The Duke of York has a problem. Asked to speak to a crowd at Wembley Stadium, the second in line to the British throne moved his trembling lips, but nothing came out. The seconds ticked by with agony, and when he finally spoke, the words surfaced through a tongue-tied stammer, made more excruciating by the echo of the primitive microphone. The Duke was content to nurse his disability in private, far from the spotlight, but in 1936 was forced to become king with the abdication of his wastrel older brother, Edward VIII. Three years later, as George VI, he was called upon to be the strong figurehead in the struggle against Nazism. A stammering national leader in a time of international crisis would have inspired pity or humor rather than fortitude and sacrifice.

Director Tom Hooper filmed this year’s Oscar contender in the unofficial Anglophile costume drama category, The King’s Speech, from a recent London stage play. It stars Colin Firth as the man who never wanted to be king, Helena Bonham Carter as his wife, Elizabeth, and Geoffrey Rush as the man who coached him into becoming a capable public speaker. Firth plays the Duke of York as a timid, embarrassed man hiding petulantly behind the walls of royal reserve, his occasionally nasty outbursts acting as the unsteady props for his uncertain ego. Bonham Carter was born to be regal and carries her role with a light twinkle in her eye. Rush carries the film as Lionel Logue, the self-taught speech therapist who knew more than the highly credentialed men of science attending the royal family. One of the Duke’s physicians recommended smoking to “relax the larynx.”

Based loosely on fact, Rush’s Logue derives his therapy from perceptive insights into the psychology of his patients. The Duke was broken by his commanding father and ill treated early on by a cruel nanny. Logue’s exercises began with the realization that the barriers to the Duke’s speaking voice were in his mind. An interesting aspect of The King’s Speech is the portrayal of Edward VIII. Once depicted in popular culture as the man who followed his heart and renounced an empire for the woman he loved, Edward is now seen as feckless, weak and sympathetic to Hitler. In The King’s Speech, his infatuation with the American gold digger Wallis Simpson might have saved Britain from the indignity of a traitor on the throne.

In the end, George was able to address his nation by radio on the eve of World War II, the struggling gaps between words adding a rueful solemnity to his declaration that Britain would stand against the barbarians. Regardless of the film’s dramatic license, The King’s Speech captures a sense of George’s wartime role as a poker-faced enigma in full dress uniform, a figure of calm determination in Buckingham Palace as German bombs fell all around him. As a national symbol, Britain could have had far worse. The King’s Speech opens Dec. 25 at the Downer Theatre.


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