Saturday, December 11, 2010

The King Speaks the Speech

My knowledge of British history between the wars has become, I discovered Friday, rather hazy. In school, I excelled in history classes pertaining to the first half of the 20th century – back in the second half of the 20th century. I still know well the British and American mystery writers of that period, but I had forgotten the names of the real people and the parties and the politics until I saw “The King’s Speech.” My fuzzy memory was not an impediment to involvement in the film’s story, so I can safely encourage others who would not get an “A” in a history class on the period to go see the film. “The King’s Speech” has very little in the way of razzle dazzle (though it has some pomp and circumstance), and no car chases, but it is worth your time. The story is clearly told, its point of view unwavering, and its cast altogether splendid as led by Colin Firth (as the second in line Prince of York, later King George VI) and Geoffrey Rush as the commoner Lionel Logue. The film zeroes in on these two men in a time that would change the tide of western history. And they sure are fun to watch.

The King’s Speech” can refer to two things: first, the speech impediment of King George VI, who, in another time, might have been referred to as Bertie the Stammerer; and second, the final speech of the film, the speech made by a wartime king to his people. The speech impediment would not have been an issue prior to the 20th century and the advent of mass communications via wireless – no, not cellphones or the internet via wifi. The “wireless” was the radio. Although the radio was connected to the wall by an electrical cord and therefore not “wireless” as we use the term today, all the radios in the world were not connected by wires to the place from whence the broadcast emanated. Hence, “wireless.”

[Nor were the Beatles tiny little guys inside my radio, or regular size guys running from a radio station on 34th Street to another in Rockefeller Center playing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” live when I was hearing it, but that’s an altogether different set of childhood beliefs.]

The “wireless” radio was a modern marvel, an equalizer, as well as a destroyer of private space, just as television came to be after it.

King George V (played to perfection by Michael Gambon) seems to be a distant father, to his second son, Albert (Firth), and a disappointed one in his eldest son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce). The Queen is played by a coldly regal Claire Bloom. Ms. Bloom’s brief appearances in the film seems to reflect the queen’s brief appearances in her children’s lives, and tend to make us forgive any failures and foibles of her sons. As I said, the point of view of the filmmakers is clear. Not all historians would agree, but they didn’t write this movie.

King George V learned to use the new instruments, the microphone and the radio, to address his people, and expected his sons to do the same. None of this is extemporaneous, all the language is “approved,” and the speeches rehearsed. Edward takes to it readily. Albert, however, while clearly intelligent and well versed in the domestic and foreign affairs of the British Empire, cannot get out three words without stammering and leaving huge pauses – and silence on the airwaves is deadly. Although second in line to the throne, still Albert has duties to perform and he has tried every medical treatment available to cure his stammering to no avail.

Colin Firth was born to play Bertie, later George VI. He is quintessentially British, reserved, with a stick where you’d expect it to be, yet terribly vulnerable in his stance, his eyes, his mouth. The first time he sits down in Logue’s parlor, he crosses his legs and pulls his arms tight to his trunk, as if physically compressing any needs or weaknesses that may emanate in this unfamiliar territory. He is in someone else’s playground, and he doesn’t like it. His stammer is painful to hear, his eyes seeing the words he cannot speak painful to watch. His wife, the future Queen Mum, is played here by Helena Bonham-Carter, more recently seen as madwomen, at which she excels. Her Elizabeth (mother of the future Queen Elizabeth II) is a strong, resolute woman who adores her husband, and works before and behind the scenes to give him the strength and confidence he’ll need in the days to come. The contrast between her and her husband’s mother is very clearly defined in family scenes in which she and Bertie spend time with their two daughters.

It is Elizabeth who pseudonymously seeks out the unconventional Lionel Logue (the wonderfully unconventional Geoffrey Rush), she who maintains the formality of her royal status while inviting the commoner to provide his services in his own way, not the royal way. I quite like Ms. Bonham-Carter in this role – apparently as she ages she can play sane as well as mad.

Initially Bertie, much as he may wish to overcome his stammer, will not play Logue’s game his way, but both Elizabeth and Bertie recognize thresholds passed under Logue’s ministrations that no Harley Street doctors achieved. A decidedly odd and far from comfortable friendship develops between these two disparate men – so uncomfortable that Logue doesn’t tell his own wife that he’s treating the Prince of York until Mrs. Logue comes home to find the royal couple in her parlor. Rush’s Logue is confident, frightened, cocky, subservient, hopeful -- much of this story shows us quotidian moments in this man’s life so he becomes ours, he becomes us. We watch him audition for an amateur theatrical company and fail, then boldly challenge the King of England to overcome his impediment. Rush is a hoot.

It amused me to see Derek Jacobi, clearly an expert stammerer in the “I, Claudius” miniseries, playing the Archbishop of Canterbury.

[Note: If you’re unfamiliar with “I, Claudius,” read the book by Robert Graves and rent the miniseries. It’s fabulous, with appearances by British actors when they were much younger -- some even with hair.]

Wonderful actors pop up throughout the film, including Timothy Spall as a pre-war Winston Churchill (not the usual drawl, but he wasn’t the powerhouse yet, and Spall plays him as a quietly encouraging behind-the-scenes man), Anthony Andrews as Prime Minister Baldwin (Andrews was the pretty young Sebastian in the original “Brideshead Revisited,” and he’s grown gaunt and serious as a prime minister in a tempest-tossed Europe would be), Jennifer Ehle as Logue’s wife Myrtle (smart, to-the-point, and quietly warm), and Eve Best barely recognizable as Wallis Simpson (Mrs. Simpson is not shown favorably here, but Eve Best doesn’t play her as a gold-digger; just as a superficial woman accustomed to getting what she wants, and not considering the consequences to anyone else for so much as a moment.).

The film’s structure and build is chronological, each year bringing the two princes, Edward and Bertie, inevitably to their fates, and each year bringing Bertie and Logue closer to the full disclosure needed to push the accidental king beyond his obstacle. The wireless came closer than the tabloids and long before the internet in exposing the private lives of the powerful. Edward’s insistence on abdicating in 1936 because he could not function “without the help and support of the woman I love” made a private matter public -- his speech over the wireless went out to the entire Empire, on which the sun never set. Once Edward made his irrevocable decision, Bertie had to overcome his own obstacles to take on the mantle of apparent power – that is, he became King, and subject to his people’s needs. He had to be able to speak to them over the wireless, and inspire them. With Lionel Logue’s help, he did.

What Lionel Logue did was more speech therapy than speech pathology. He treated people with emotional and/or physical trauma who’d lost the ability to speak clearly or, in some instances, at all. These could be young men returning shell shocked from World War I, whom no one in the medical professions knew how to help. Or they could be children who, as Logue says in the film, “were not born” stammering, but who came to stammer as they grew up. Simply and clearly, Bertie finally makes bald statements about events of his childhood that preceded the advent of his stammer. No magical cure, this, Logue and Bertie must continue to work and sweat and rehearse so that the King addressing his people could sound as he really was – intelligent, informed, and passionate.

The King’s Speech” is beautifully filmed, the camera lavishing care on the vast interiors of royalty and the halls of power, the tattered wallpapers of the Logues, the rich velvets and stiff collars, the expanses of people gathering to hear their royals speak. From fogbound London to Canterbury Cathedral to Balmoral, the film is photographed splendidly by Danny Cohen and well directed by Tom Hooper. Ms. Bonham Carter’s hats are, of course, marvelous.

This film is entirely sympathetic to Logue and Bertie/Albert (George is the fifth of his Christian names – Albert was deemed too Germanic for an English king coming to the throne as Nazi Germany was rising to the east). The script by David Seidler is succinct and passionate, the acting superb in every scene.

The film is scheduled for a wider release come Christmas. Give yourself the gift of Firth and Rush.

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer but not the light. Must re-read my history texts.

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