Fortunately, he is in little danger of ascending to the throne, as the crown is to sit on his brother David’s head. But his brother – the man who would be King Edward VIII – is head-over-heels in love with an American divorcée. He famously abdicates for love, thus sticking Albert with what feels like a crown of thorns. Oh, and there’s a world war looming, too.
Fate has a sense of humor, too. The King’s Speech, directed by Tom Hooper and written by David Seidler, recounts how Albert reluctantly ascended to the throne and grew into the role of king with a little help from a quirky therapist. Albert – or Bertie (Colin Firth), as he is known to his family (he has no friends) – has sought numerous cures, from numerous quacks, for his speaking problem. His patient and sympathetic wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), the future Queen Mum, finds an unorthodox speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian who promises to cure the monarch. He also promises to ruffle the royal feathers by insisting, among other things, that therapy sessions be held in his shabby office and that he and Bertie be on first-name terms. Bertie finds him irritating and impertinent, but also effective.
Lionel’s plan is to dig up and expose the root of Bertie’s problem – something that the reserved, private prince prefers not to do. What follows is part comedy, part therapy session, part odd-couple story as Bertie and Lionel talk and confide and bicker. Lionel, whose opinion of the monarchy is low (though he holds Bertie in high esteem), occasionally oversteps his bounds. Bertie resists Lionel’s efforts to probe into his painful childhood and family life, until circumstance – that troublesome, impetuous, lovestruck brother – forces him to confront everything all at once: his past, his future, Hitler. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, indeed.
For all that heaviness, for all Bertie’s anger and anxiety, The King’s Speech is a mostly lighthearted movie that primarily aims to entertain, and so it does. There’s a bit of a history lesson squeezed in for good measure, but the hammy (in a good way) performance by Rush, and Firth’s ability to maintain a stiff upper lip while letting fly with a stream of stutter-free expletives (which inexplicably earned the sex-and-violence-free movie an R rating), make this an enjoyable romp through a dark period of history.
The movie gives little time to the crisis that was nearly Bertie’s (and maybe the monarchy’s) undoing: brother David (Guy Pearce) and his affair with Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). In only a few scenes, the movie slyly hints at the perhaps-perverse nature of their relationship, the unconventional power dynamic between them and David’s unwillingness – or inability – to give up Wallis for honor, for power or for country. Pearce reveals much about David’s temperament, his intemperance, his imperiousness, his whingeing and sense of victimhood and his cruel torture (both intentional and unintentional) of his brother. There’s an interesting movie to be made about that guy; and if they cast Guy Pearce to play him just as he does in The King’s Speech, all the better. If the monarchy is good for nothing else (and that’s a distinct possibility), it’s good at producing dysfunctional families and high drama.
The King’s Speech is a film that’s eager to please, even when it must delve into the royal family’s unpleasantness. The movie creates an effective sense of Bertie’s options diminishing; he seems forced to navigate many long, narrow corridors and to confront an increasing number of microphones that, in the way that inanimate objects like 1930s mics can do, seem to scowl at him. (Unlike most dramas about royals, The King’s Speech abjures palatial opulence, making the monarchs look practically middle-class.) There’s a growing sense of both necessity and desperation, and Firth’s portrayal reveals King George VI to be a man who will do what he must for his country – even speak to it.
The title refers to Bertie’s speech in general, but also in particular to a crucial speech that he must broadcast, informing England and the world that they are going to war against Germany. It’s an important, defining moment, both for the man and the country, and The King’s Speech effectively and movingly shows how the two are one, their fates intertwined. The king’s little story of overcoming personal adversity will be mirrored in the courage and solidarity that Britons famously exhibited during the war.
In some ways, the stories that The King’s Speech implies but doesn’t tell promise to be even more interesting than the one it does tell; but it is nonetheless a poignant and interesting personal drama, and a diverting, fun, juicy historical drama as well.
Want more royal angst? Syd recommends a look at Marie Antoinette
In Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), drawn from Antonia Fraser’s revisionist bio of the ill-fated queen, Marie is a frivolous, impetuous teenager, stuck in a marriage of political importance that offers little emotional satisfaction. But as Coppola envisions her, Marie (Kirsten Dunst) is more sympathetic than one might expect. While the movie has something to say about privilege and noblesse oblige, the focus here is more on the irresistible forces that shaped (or perhaps warped) Marie into the creature that she became.
At 19, she became queen, and neither she nor Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman) was up to the task of salvaging a country drowning in debt or a regime in its death throes, so the girl who would come to embody all the corruption and decadence of the monarchy did what she did best: She enjoyed a life of leisure and entitlement. Versailles is a virtual zoo, and she is one of its chief attractions: a pretty girl on perpetual display, with critical observers noting her every gaffe and lamenting her lack of fertility.
The mood of Marie Antoinette, like the mood of its chief subject, toggles between melancholy loneliness and high-spirited insouciance – it is an entertaining, atmospheric piece that quickly and sneakily gets under the skin, and offers more than meets the eye. Coppola offers plenty of visual delights and distractions, and most of her anthropological and cultural observations are laced with humor and irony; but there is also a great deal of substance here, whether one views Marie as an Ancien Regime pop-culture icon, or as a victim of patriarchal repression, or as an overscheduled kid struggling with adult-sized obligations.
@ Syd M