We all know that one of the most important jobs of any leader is to be a voice for his or her people in times of joy and sorrow; many a modern political career have been dependent on this principle for decades. But while the 20th and 21st centuries have seen their fair share of leaders born from a single “catchphrase,” or ruined over a soundbite, few know the true stories behind the words on the page. So, what happens when speaking the words becomes just as difficult a battle as choosing the right ones?
I will admit it was difficult watching parts of The King’s Speech. Not because it was bad, but because it was a little too good. Having grown up with a stammer, I cringed watching the reserved Bertie (Colin Firth) try to get through the simplest of sentences, only to cry out in anger and frustration at the seemingly impenetrable vocal block that made the whole exercise seem like such a futile errand. For Bertie, his loving wife Elizabeth’s (Helena Bonham Carter) incessant search for the miracle speech therapist was a waste of time. Touted as reputable doctors with the proper “credentials,” we see Bertie in the hands of quacks, his mouth full of marbles in a dire search for a cure. Bertie’s pessimism coupled with a cold royal family paints a hopeless picture in the beginning of the film, but when it’s your brother positioned as heir to the throne, how much use is speech therapy anyway?
Bertie takes comfort in the fact that although he still is a part of the royal family and has a role to play, that role is mainly behind the scenes and not in front of a microphone. Most if not all of the national addresses were performed by his father, King George V (Michael Gambon), and following his death, King Edward VIII, Bertie’s older brother (Guy Pierce). After a scandalous abdication of the throne by Edward, Bertie must do what his brother could not; accept his responsibilities under overwhelming pressure.
Many stammerers let their fear guide critical choices in their life, including future careers. Imagining a scenario where your career is not only chosen for you, but forces you to possibly reveal an embarrassing truth and overcome it in front of a nation is an incredibly difficult situation, and one Firth portrays with great beauty and dignity. When Bertie realizes he will no longer be able to rely on other’s voices, Elizabeth finds the miracle worker, sans credentials, she has been searching for in Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). The eccentrically unorthodox Australian with a no-fuss attitude is a little much for Bertie to take in at first, but their relationship blossoms into a lifelong friendship. It is here where the performances of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush really shine.
Bertie and Lionel (first names only, please) work with each other as colleagues, friends, and equals, discovering Bertie’s inner demons and fears for his success as a monarch. It is on the eve of England’s entrance into WWII where for the first time, Bertie’s country is in need of him. This last scene, “The King’s Speech,” is the culmination of all the emotion and struggle experienced throughout the film. In it, we hang on Bertie’s every word, waiting to see if he not only makes it through the speech, but tucks in to his role as King of England. The speech, as we know, is a success, yet Bertie can only relish in it for a moment. At the very end, Bertie turns to Lionel with a weary, yet determined face and says, “I suppose there will be much more than that to come.” It is an acknowledgement to the multitude of other speeches he will give during his time as King, as well as a recognition that a battle had been won in a greater war that was far from over. Lionel continued to assist Bertie with every speech he made as King, kindling within him a strength and resilience in the face of fear that he carried not only for himself but for the British people in one of their darkest hours.
Post Script: I didn’t discuss the performances much and I shouldn’t have to. With a lineup like Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pierce, and Michael Gambon, how could anything go wrong? If Firth looses the Oscar again, I will be surprised and dismayed. Carter and Rush should also receive nominations for their respective roles which were brilliant and the perfect compliment to Firth’s Bertie. An Anglophile need not ask for more.
You can listen to the real speech below: