The King’s Speech (2010) tells the story of Prince Albert, the Duke of York and the future King George VI of England, and how he struggled to overcome his lifelong speech impediment during the period leading up to and just after his assumption of the crown. The film, directed by Tom Hooper, has been one of the most lauded productions of the year, having been nominated for fourteen BAFTA awards, twelve Academy Awards (Oscars), and having received widespread acclaim from the critics and the public. In the face of such overwhelming approval, I could perhaps remain silent, but there may be some people out there who are sympathetic to some of the misgivings I have about the film.
The story concentrates on Albert’s continuing distress concerning his pronounced stammer and the lengthy working relationship he had with an eccentric speech therapist, Lionel Logue, who was engaged to help him with his disorder. The film concludes in a triumphant, feel-good manner in 1939 when Albert, now King George VI, manages successfully to deliver a radio speech to the country when war was declared with Germany. Although the film begins in 1925 with Albert delivering a brief, but disturbingly stuttering, address at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium, most of the film’s action concentrates on the five-year period between 1934 and 1939.
What makes the film interesting as a narrative are the three parallel and interwoven narrative threads that run through the film.
- The Speech Therapy. The main thread is the Albert’s personal struggle to overcome his stammer and the mortification that it induced. In a sense this thread is a metaphor for Albert’s development into a person fit to rule an empire.
- Historical Developments. There were interesting developments during this five-year period, including the death of Albert’s father (King George V), the ascension to the throne and then abdication of Albert’s older brother (King Edward VIII and after abdication, the Duke of Windsor), and the threatening rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany.
- Relationship with Logue. A third narrative thread is the developing relationship between Albert and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue. Logue was a commoner from Australia, and the evident contrast between the down-to-earth Aussie bloke and his royal patron and their ensuing gradual rapport elevates the Logue character to a lead role.
1. Film Narrative. Outstanding films are those that tell a compelling story using the visual dynamics of cinema. There is considerable potential with this material, but the realization here comes up short. As the narrative threads #2 (Historical Developments) and #3 (Relationship with Logue) meander along, they don’t have the dramatic arcs or developments that make them interesting stories on their own. Of course the Historical Developments thread culminates in a declaration of War, but Albert’s role in those events is on the sideline, and the film counts on the viewer’s external knowledge to carry that thread along. The Relationship with Logue thread is vague throughout. We never really get a feeling for what each thinks of the other, or how that thinking evolves – although they eventually come to some sort of unspoken accommodation. This leaves only thread #1, the Speech Therapy thread, as the driving narrative. This one also doesn’t work well, because whenever the film returns to it, there is a session in which significant progress concerning Albert’s stuttering appears to have been made. Yet on each successive return to this thread, we are back to square one, with Albert stammering worse than ever. Although the dramatists may have felt compelled to evince some progress with each session, these repetitive sequences are delusive and ultimately frustrating. In addition, this thread carries the suggestion that the cause of Albert’s problems was due to psychological traumas he experienced as a child, but this idea is neither developed nor resolved. At the end the film winds up with its triumphant radio speech, which presumptively concludes and resolves all three threads in some sort of victorious mood, but the narrative buildup to that finale has been ineffective.On the positive side, I would have to say that Colin Firth does a good job under the circumstances in his role as Albert. I find it hard to believe that Albert was such a conflicted, anguished personality, but Firth does appear convincing. In addition, Helena Bonham Carter, as Albert’s wife, Elizabeth, has little to do in the story, but she adds a convincing and sympathetic element to the domestic surroundings. Her mere presence makes Albert a more sympathetic character.
2. Character Development.
3. Historical Accuracy. Taking liberties with some historical details is often necessitated to simplify and condense a story into a coherent two-hour vehicle. But such liberties need to be around the edges. In this case, it seems, compromises with historical veracity may have been made in connection with core issues of the story.
- The characterisations of most of the people around Albert are all wooden stereotypes of upperclass manners. Although this may appeal to some audiences fascinated with the Upstairs, Downstairs contrasts in British society, the exaggerated postures in this film, particularly that of Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury, are severe. One might argue that, in real life, members of the British upperclass are playing stereotypical roles, so such dramas are only reflecting reality. But the characterisations here are not even that true to life. In addition the Aussie-English contrast between Logue and Albert appears to be forced to the point that the film is sometimes described as a comedy. Lionel Logue’s son, for example, has stated that his father never swore in front of Albert and never called him , “Bertie”.
- The role of Lionel Logue, though, is an important one with considerable screen time devoted to it, but it is never really developed into a meaningful character. It is difficult to develop a mental picture of what is going on in his mind.
- The portrayal of Wallis Simpson (later, the Duchess of Windsor), whose affair with Edward VIII led to his abdication, is that of a manipulative, poisonous viper. In fact there are two conflicting narratives about Ms. Simpson’s affair in popular culture: either it is a story of romantic love that sacrifices all, or it is a story of a Jezebel-like she-devil who threatened the British crown. American portrayals of her often follow the former narrative outline, while British portrayals usually choose the latter, as did The King’s Speech.
- The film celebrates the British war effort and resolute British opposition to the Nazis, with the presumption that George VI (Albert) embodied this attitude. But commentators have argued that Albert was pro-appeasement.
- Albert apparently hired Logue in 1926 and demonstrated progress in his speech within months, whereas the film depicts Logue being hired around 1934, with speaking progress taking a much longer period. In addition, some people have argued that Albert’s stammer is greatly exaggerated in the film and that Albert’s stuttering in real life was much milder.
- The film suggests that Winston Churchill was in favour of Edward’s abdication, but commentators have maintained that Churchill urged Edward not to abdicate.
- The extreme wide-angle, almost fish-eye lens, photography used in connection with Albert’s sessions is disconcerting and renders these scenes unrealistic. This was probably done to make the figures around Albert imposing and threatening (suggesting the psychological cause of Albert’s problem, which is never really developed), but instead the technique merely makes the scenes more like slapstick comedy.
- The many full-face, backward-moving tracking shots are laborious and not visually motivated – and only contribute to further claustrophobia.
The musical background score is far too intrusive for this sort of story. In particular, the use of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony during the final radio speech is ponderous and heavy-handed. Its use is also a bit curious for a speech aimed at marshalling British resolve to fight Germany.
Overall and from my perspective, though, The King’s Speech is a misleading, confused, and disappointing work. It has a few good moments, but not enough of them.