Photo courtesy of See Saw Films
Review by Ryan Wilson

It’s easy sometimes to feel as if the days of precise elocution are behind us. In this age of Facebook and Twitter, our public discourse can easily become dominated by the random text and sound bite, which arguably make the art of giving a good old- fashioned speech feel as antiquated as ancient Greece. All it takes, however, is one national tragedy or emergency to remind us of the restorative power of public speaking.

I couldn’t help but dwell on such matters after watching The King’s Speech, the tender tale of King George VI’s struggle with a lifelong speech impediment. The film stars the ever-reliable Colin Firth as King George, or Bertie as his friends call him, and the ever-flexible Geoffery Rush as his unorthodox therapist. Structurally, the movie follows the feel-good blueprint found in most of these types of overcoming personal obstacle plots. When we’re first introduced to Bertie, then the Duke of York, he’s embarrassing himself while tripping through a speech at Wembley Stadium after being asked to speak there by his demanding father, King George V. That we see his utter failure is important in order for us to know how large the mountain he needs to climb. Add to that Bertie’s own temper and shame regarding his stutter, and the story almost tells itself.

What saves the film is Rush’s therapist, who feels more like a psychologist than a speech specialist. He elevates the story because rather than focusing on the effect, he focuses on the cause of the dysfunction, which of course is not comfortable for a member of the ruling class. One simply does not speak about such personal matters.

Thus the best scenes in the film are Rush and Firth hammering away at each other in a stale and boxy room. In this sense, it’s not difficult to imagine the film adapted to a stage play. I say this because, it’s truly an achievement to keep an audience enraptured with prolonged conversation minus additional movement or visuals. Rush and Firth do a magnificent job with this sort of “staged minimalism.” Predictably, a sort of grudging friendship develops between the two, and through their sessions together we get insights into each character. We see that each man is dealing with insecurity, and each longs for transformation, a definite theme throughout the film.

Add a few twists regarding the fate of each, and we inevitable come to the climax where Bertie must deliver a monumental speech on the eve of war with Germany. It literally feels as if the blitz will begin any minute as he delivers his words, so he must succeed in comforting his beloved country.

I have some issue with Firth, or rather the acclaim he’s receiving due to his performance. Last weekend he won best dramatic actor for this role at the Golden Globes. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve to win, but watching his performance, I wonder whether Firth deserves such acclaim, or if he’s just mastered an excellent stammer. This is the type of role that critics always lavish praise upon because the actor has excelled at playing the infirmity rather than the character suffering from an illness. Nearly each year we see leading men from Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot to John Hurt in The Elephant Man to Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump garner nominations for portraying impaired individuals. Firth ultimately won me over not for his stutter, but for his ability to make me care for him aside from the stutter. For example, we see the pain in his eyes when he’s asked to tell his young daughters a story before bed and can’t, and he also is equally unsympathetic at times, such as when he’s bullying and speaking coarsely to others.

Rush, who has also played the suffering lead character to perfection in 1996’s Shine, gets to be even more colorful here as the therapist. He controls his room, and the tempo of the film. Through him a subtle message emerges that the common man is always in control, king or no king. He rarely even acknowledges Bertie’s nobility. Too much in the background are the historical events of the time, such as the rise of Hitler and England’s foreign policy regarding him. Yet these developments are what make the final speech, and its confident delivery, so very material. Instead the film chooses to focus on Bertie’s conquering his stutter as a metaphor for his perseverance regarding Germany. In the end, we’re not left thinking about the speech itself but rather the performance of the speech, and I think we’re capable of grasping at both.

But only a cynic wouldn’t be moved by The King’s Speech. As so often happens during such moments, and such movies, after the words are delivered, the ideas rise to meet our demands.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011