Published December 14, 2010
Anglophilia alert! If you love England, if you have always revered Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Tony Blair, Princess Diana--or even Benny Hill or the Beatles--you will love “The King’s Speech,” a new movie about Great Britain in the '30s, a time of hesitation and then greatness, when the country reluctantly faced up to the challenge of Hitler and Nazism, two years before the United States similarly faced up.
If you loved such films as “Mrs. Miniver,” “In Which We Serve,” “Brideshead Revisited,” “Remains of the Day,” “Atonement,” and “Young Victoria,” then surely you will love “The King’s Speech” too, because it is filled with the same elements: the “posh” accents, the clipped and perhaps a bit fruity diction of Oxbridge dons and BBC presenters, the costumes, the scenery, and walk-ons by resonant figures in world history. And so if “Speech” might seem a bit formulaic in its assemblage of all those bits and pieces, by jove, it’s a jolly good formula.
As with many great films, “Speech” is a personal movie inside a historical movie. The “personal” movie is the story of a character struggling to overcome a disability--think “The Miracle Worker,” or “Sling Blade,” or “A Beautiful Mind.” Or, of course, “My Fair Lady,” to which this latest film is a kind of mirror-bookend.
In “Speech,” the drama is the true story of the future King George VI, who had suffered from a severe stammer all his life. The story begins in 1925, when Prince Albert (he didn’t take on the name “George” until he assumed the throne in 1936), attempts to give a brief speech at Wembley Stadium outside of London. It’s a painful scene to watch, as the prince struggles to get his words out, as tens of thousands look on--and then look away from the pitiful spectacle.
After that embarrassment, “Bertie,” as his family calls him around the palace, resolves never again to make a fool of himself in public. And since he is third-in-line to the throne, behind the reigning King George V and his older brother, the future Edward VIII, his shyness doesn’t seem to be much of an issue. Yet by the mid-30s, George V is dying, and it becomes obvious that his older brother is unqualified to be king. As the reigning king says of his eldest son and heir, “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in 12 months.”
Indeed, the stakes are now high: George V observes that Adolf Hitler seeks to control one half of Europe, and Josef Stalin seeks to control the other half. So what will England do? By that time, of course, the country was a constitutional monarchy, and so the sovereign had little actual power, but the nation--and the English-speaking world--still looked to the king for leadership and inspiration. And the new medium of radio made it possible for a single leader to communicate across the planet. Hitler was doing it, with his message of hateful propaganda, and so his opponents, as well, had to master the radio waves. “We’ve become actors,” one of the royals sighs about the new medium, and he is right--one must fight fire with fire.
So that’s the “historical” part of the film: the vast drama of epic events recorded in weighty tomes, even as individual characters struggle with their own personal challenges.
Realizing that history would summon him to duty, like it or not, our prince--played with Oscar-grabbing understatement and poignancy by Colin Firth--resolves to improve his speech, seeking out the best speech therapists in London. And the best happens to be one Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush, who already has an Oscar and might well win another), a master of speechcraft, albeit one who inflicts distinctly unorthodox methods on his clients.
For example, Lionel refuses to come see the prince in his palace; instead, Albert must come to Lionel’s dingy basement office. Seeking to find a place to start, Lionel asks, “Do you know any jokes?” To which the prince responds, slowly and painfully, “Timing is not my strong suit.” In addition, to establish the intimacy he needs to do his work, Lionel insists on calling the prince “Bertie” and then leads him through exercises that are awkward but effective.
By 1936, Bertie has made some personal improvements--but the national situation has worsened. The old king has died, and Berties’s older brother, now King Edward VIII, sits uneasily on the throne. And then the film comes to a new drama that Anglophiles know all about: Edward loves Wallis Warfield Simpson, a twice-divorced American. Even worse, he wants to marry her and make her his queen.
Back then, the idea of marrying a divorcee was simply unacceptable; the Anglican church, of which the monarch was the nominal head, was still a pillar of personal rectitude and political conservatism. And besides, Edward is a quiet admirer of “Herr Hitler,” much to the horror of Winston Churchill, who has a small role in the film, providing the same moral ballast that he provided in English history. So to the relief of just about everyone, including the new king himself, Edward abdicates the throne in favor of Bertie--now King George VI.
Within three years of George’s assuming the monarchy, England is at war with Germany. The country wants the reassurance of hearing from its king. But within the private confines of his palace, the still-stammering king is in despair, telling Lionel, “The nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them. But I can’t speak.” This was September 1939, and it’s important to note that the great orator Churchill was not yet prime minister; the post at 10 Downing Street was held by the thoroughly discredited Neville Chamberlain--nobody wanted to hear from him. So the king had to speak to the world. He had to “man up,” as we say today.
What happens then? Will King George VI rise to the occasion? Will he prove, once and for all, that he has learned from Lionel? Will he look good in the eyes of his family, including the future Queen Elizabeth II? No spoilers here. You’ll have to watch the movie. Although remember, this movie follows the proven formula.
But wait: Who can resist another dose of Anglophilia? The king concluded in his worldwide speech over the BBC on September 3, 1939:
"It is to this high purpose that I now call my people at home and my peoples across the seas, who will make our cause their own. I ask them to stand calm, firm, and united in this time of trial. The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield. But we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to God. If one and all we keep resolutely faithful to it, ready for whatever service or sacrifice it may demand, then, with God’s help, we shall prevail. May God bless and keep us all."
Moving words, much needed in wartime, and proof that a speech coach, too, had done his job and served his country.
James P. Pinkerton is a writer, Fox News contributor and founder/editor of Serious Medicine Strategy.com.