Years ago, I once read somewhere that Prince Charles uses one of those plastic devices that helps squeeze toothpaste out of the tube, and it fascinated me. Charles, His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, and heir to the throne of the United Kingdom, is a regular bloke just like me, who puts on his £1,000 trousers one leg at a time.
This idea, that despite the grandeur and etiquette of royalty, kings and queens are in fact people with the same fears, emotions, and desire for true friendship as the rest of us, is central to Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, one of the year’s best films.
The film opens on a BBC announcer, sitting alone in a studio, going through a preparation of diction exercises and vocal warmups before going on-air. He is introducing a live broadcast from the British Empire Exhibition. Contrast this with what follows. The man delivering the address at the exhibition walks nervously up a flight of stairs, up to a microphone where he is being watched by thousands in Wembley Stadium and heard by millions more over the radio, opens his mouth, and painfully stammers his way through just the first sentence of three pages.
The man in question is Prince Albert (Colin Firth), Duke of York and second son of King George V. It is the 1930s, and all of Europe seems poised for a second World War. The British public will look to its leaders for a strong voice to give them courage in an increasingly anxious environment. King George (Michael Gambon) is a commanding speaker who was a national figure for Britain during the first World War, but he knows his health is in decline. His eldest son, David, is the heir apparent to the throne, but he has recently taken up a relationship with a twice-divorced socialite. Should David become king and marry the woman, he would be forced to abdicate the throne to Albert, who would then be called upon to be the voice for the British Empire.
Albert’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), takes it upon herself to hire the services of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a failed actor-turned-speech therapist. Lionel’s methods are unorthodox, and he requires that he will only treat Albert if they address each other as equals and by first names. Albert will have nothing of it—he is royalty, and… well, it just isn’t done. Lionel makes a recording of Albert reciting Shakespeare while listening to loud music over headphones. Albert is convinced he stammered through the entire thing, but in a fit of depression one night, he plays back the recording. Elizabeth tearfully listens as the confident, pronounced voice of her husband plays—something she has probably never heard before.
Meanwhile, the king passes away, and the throne passes to David (crowned as Edward VIII) who must choose between marriage and the British public. After choosing to abdicate, Albert takes the throne, choosing George VI as his royal name, in honor of his father. The transition is not an easy one for Albert, and we are able to share his point of view in a few key scenes and feel the same trepidation as crowds of people (and even the portraits of his ancestors) hang on his every word.
The friendship between Lionel, a commoner, and Albert, the king, is key to the story. Conflict develops as Lionel continually shows disregard for royalty and tradition. However, it becomes clear that Lionel’s actions are not disrespect for the position but rather a confirmation of Albert’s abilities to lead. That we can share in their struggle is a tip of the hat to the performances of Geoffrey Rush and especially Colin Firth, who seems a sure bet for this year’s Best Actor win.
The title, of course, refers not only to the king’s disability but also his broadcast declaration of war with Germany in 1939. The film is based on real events, so I’m not giving anything away by letting you know that one of the film’s most dramatic points comes from not only sharing that moment with a tense public who knows their sons will soon be going off to battle, but also our hope that Albert (with Lionel by his side) can successfully make it through his speech at a time when Britain most needs his confidence. The scene itself is a masterpiece of editing and composition and earns its Best Picture nod in just a few minutes.