Mar 21, 2011

The Speech of the King

So, yeah, when it comes to movies, I am routinely months (if not years) behind the curve. That means that me having seen The King's Speech on Friday is nothing short of a miracle. It only won the Oscar for Best Picture like three weeks ago. That said, even though it's showing in about three theaters in the United States by this point, you should go see it.

It always surprises me that there are so many interesting histories that haven't been told in movie or made-for-TV-movie or miniseries or TV format. I mean, I guess fourish thousand years leaves lots of epic things to tell.

The King's Speech is the story of Albert, Duke of York, the second son of King George V (who ruled the UK during World War I) and younger brother of King Edward VIII. He, unbeknownst to me, suffered from a stutter throughout his life, almost debilitatingly so until the mid-1920's, when he began taking elocution lessons from an Australian therapist named Lionel Logue. When his brother abdicated the throne in order to marry twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson in 1936, Albert became the reluctant King George VI (father of today's Queen Elizabeth II) who led his nation through the second war with Germany in a generation.

I won't ruin the movie's story or go too deeply into it, but instead will discuss both its historicity and the acting.


First, to get an idea, here's a real video of George VI speaking in public. His stammer is noticeable, though not terribly pronounced:

The movie does a pretty good job in being historically accurate, and the changes were appropriately done for dramatic effect. I detail the biggest ones here:

1. Prince Albert actually began taking elocution lessons from Lionel Logue much earlier than the movie portrays. The film is correct in opening on Albert's speech at the closing of the British Empire Exposition in 1925. The book The Queen Mother and Her Century by Arthur Bousfield describes it thusly:

April 1925 was a particularly bad experience for the Duke as he had become President of the Empire Exhibition and was required to make a speech which would be broadcast on radio and be made in front of his awe-inspiring father, the King. The King recorded that "Bertie got through his speech all right" but others noted that there were embarrassingly long pauses in it.

After that, he determined that he had to solve his problem. Lionel Logue was the tenth he tried. Turns out that the tenth try is the charm.

2. The movie is incorrect in portraying Albert's first major public speech as his Declaration of War speech in September 1939. It was actually a speech in 1927 opening the Australian Parliament. However, for drama the film made the training with Logue and the pinnacle speech out to be later.

3. Churchill. Winston Churchill made a few appearances in the movie because people today are so familiar with him. However, as Christopher Hitchens details in his review, Churchill was actually a big supporter of Edward VIII. When the abdication was imminent, Churchill was so enamored by the young King that he almost lost his own support in the Party by advocating for his battle with the Church of England over the divorce issue.

4. On a smaller note, at the end of the film, Churchill is included with the group of senior ministers listening to the King's broadcast. This is wrong on two counts. First, there wouldn't have been a large group of people listening to the speech in Buckingham Palace. It would've simply been the King, his family, and the radio people. Second, even if the event did happen that way, Churchill as Lord of the Admiralty would not have been distinguished enough to be present. George VI only warmed up to Churchill later in the war, having been cool to him because of his support for Edward.

5. The Munich Agreement. Probably the biggest thing left out of the movie is also probably George VI's biggest monarchical blunder. When Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned in September 1938 declaring "Peace for our time," having just joined France in betraying Czechoslovakia to Hitler, the King invited him to the balcony of Buckingham Palace, an honor usually reserved for the Royal Family. His support for appeasement (though common among the Britons of the day) was misplaced, and the event stands as an embarrassment on the highest order.


I don't know what to say, beyond that Colin Firth and Helen Bonham-Carter were both incredible in their roles. I always thought that HBC was pegged as a crazy woman, on the order of Bellatrix LeStrange in the Harry Potter franchise and her character in Sweeney Todd. However, she took on the role of George VI's wife Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon ("the Queen Mother") with grace and charm. The support and care she shows for George is lovely and believable.

Firth, for his part, did (what it seemed, and what's been confirmed by experts on the subject) an incredible stuttering performance. For what is already such a difficult condition to live with, Firth showed how devastating it can be for one who must constantly speak in public. George's fear of speaking was palpable through Firth, and you loved his character for how held up under the situation: never wanting to be king, but accepting his duty with great resolve. In fact, he received what could be the highest honor for the film, and I don't mean his Oscar for Best Actor. I mean the statement from Queen Elizabeth (who was a little girl at the time of the events portrayed), saying that she was "touched by a moving portrayal of her father."

For comparison, below are the real "King's Speech" from September 3, 1939 and the one from the movie (spoiler!):

So, yeah, I can't gush about the movie enough. It was great. Well worth $10 and two hours of my life.

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