Turning Bertie

The single man from A Single Man as the Duke of York/George VI! Mrs not-Miggins from Sweeney Todd as the Duchess of York/Queen Mum! Dumbledore as George V! The girl from Outnumbered as Princess Margaret! The Master as the Archbishop of Canterbury! Him off Auf Wiedersehen, Pet as Churchill! Mike from Neighbours as the Prince of Wales/Edward VIII! How could The King’s Speech possibly disappoint?

Two speeches bookend the film. The first, the duke’s disastrous closing speech at the 1925 British Empire Exhibition. The second, his far more important broadcast to the Empire and the world as king at the outbreak of World War 2 (if you consider that a spoiler, I recommend you resign from the Internet immediately). The filling between those speech-slices shows how Bertie – the duke’s first name was Albert, not George – struggled to overcome a severe stammer with the unconventional help of aussie speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by Hollywood’s default Bruce, Geoffrey Rush.

The two meet after the Duchess of not-Miggins, quack-hunting, finds Logue in a dingy office on Harley Street. He and Bertie don’t immediately get on, not least because Logue insists on calling him Bertie. It seems that despite having married a commoner – not-Miggins wasn’t royal by birth – Bertie rarely interacted with the lower classes other than on a purely genuflective basis; unlike today, when you haven’t truly come of age until you’ve poked the Duchess of Cornwall in the ribs.

The turbulent relationship of Bertie and Logue is set against the ever-growing backdrop of the scandal of the day – Mike from Neighbours and That American Woman. In passing we also see our own dear present Queen in princess form, virtually mute for some reason; Princess Outnumbered, pre-gin and pre-fags-on-sticks, gets all the lines.

The film covers Dumbledore’s death and Mike’s accession, and we learn how both plum-tongued toffs played a part in perpetuating Bertie’s stammer. His authoritarian father took a shouty “just say it” approach to therapy, akin to the well-known “just cheer up, ferchrissakes” treatment for depression. His playboy party animal elder brother taunted him, calling him b-b-b-Bertie. Oh Mike, how could you? You were such a nice boy in Erinsborough.

Mike’s subsequent abdication and relocation to the Bungle Bungles with Her, though constitutionally a barrel-load of ZOMG! at the time that rocked the Windsors to their very core (somewhere in Bavaria?), was in hindsight the best possible outcome. Mike was far too chummy-chummy with the Austrian painter then wowing Germany with his hypnotic moustache; had he hung on to the throne through 1938 and 39 we might all be sporting that moustache today.

That’s not to say that Bertie, as king, was perfect. The film ignores the uncomfortable truth that he was entirely relaxed about Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler at Munich, and indeed favoured Halifax over Churchill when Chamberlain evacuated himself from Downing Street in 1940. But it’s true that Bertie, in contrast to his elder brother, was a fighter not a quitter. Although unprepared and untrained to be king – “I’m a naval officer,” he says in the film – he knew his duty. As Duke of York, despite his stammer, he stood before thousands and spoke – unconfidently, haltingly, with endless, excruciating pauses, with uneasy, embarrassed crowds – at event after event. And as king during the war he was seen as a symbol of Britain, a great strength, a huge asset to morale. Perhaps some of that was down to his Australian therapist and his apparently dodgy but effective techniques.

A few of the film’s visuals stand out: the original, partly-uncovered Wembley stadium is nicely recreated, and a balcony scene at Buckingham Palace is very effective. Mostly London is enveloped in budget-friendly smog.

With the exception of the cliched and slightly comic cigar-fatty Churchill impersonation of Timothy Spall, performances are universally good. Geoffrey Rush is entirely convincing. Derek Jacobi looks more and more like a barn owl with every movie. Mike from Neighbours has a tough job: not just doing toff, but the toff whose voice we all know from regular outings of the abdication speech (which he performs in the film).

Colin Firth’s Bertie, of course, dominates. This is no p-p-p-pick up a Penguin acting: it’s a real, raw, painful stammer. More than once I realised I was holding my breath as he spoke, my heart racing. In the final outbreak-of-war speech we will him on, fight with him, and cheer at the finish (not actually, we’re British, but we do fidget a little and exhale with a faint smile).

It’s a great performance, and a great film. Firth for the Oscar.

Avaragado’s rating: a pound of gobstoppers

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