The King’s Speech: Cast makes the Windsors look good
by Adrian Doran
King George VI and his supportive spouse.
Bertie Windsor (Colin Firth) had planned a life of quiet privilege in the welcome shadow of his older brother David (Guy Pierce). He had a pair of nice daughters, a slightly scary wife (Helena Bonham Carter) fiercely protective of her under-confident, stammering husband and rare, but taxing, family responsibilities.
David was to take over the family business from their fierce father—that’s King George V of the British Empire to you and me. But when David ascended the throne and then promptly, sensationally, scandalously abdicated, passing the crown to Bertie, Britain and the new King were in crisis.
On the eve of war with Nazi Germany, the national figurehead was quiet, uninspiring and terrified of public speaking. His lifelong affliction was being treated by unorthodox Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose unpretentious warmth broke through Bertie's emotional backlog just in time for a vital speech to the nation.
David Seidler’s Oscar-winning script lightly whitewashes history, too respectfully ignoring some of the Windsors’ famous brittleness and snobbery. There are a couple of awkward moments when he tries to lever unwieldy metaphors into an efficient script (amateur Shakespearean actor Logue’s speech on Richard III’s deformity as a contrast to George VI’s stammer? No thanks). But the brisk pace of the dialogue moves us quickly along and onto the real meat—the scenes between Firth and Rush.
The contrast in their faces is comical—Rush's warm, long jowls, Firth’s square jaw and smooth handsomeness—but the connection is in the eyes. Rush's are direct and twinkly; Firth's, distracted, alarmed by confrontation, then moist with anxiety. Firth’s performance has been acknowledged as an instant classic, and it's a marvel of restraint. He could have exaggerated the stammer, the reedy voice, the clipped tones and who would have blamed him, when the subject was almost an instant caricature? But he underplays and the reward is a profoundly empathic reaction from the audience for a remote character and his problems of rallying an Empire on the eve of war.
Everyone in movies is twice as good-looking as in real life, but King’s Speech goes above and beyond. The Windsors do rather well and must be pleased: Mr. Darcy as Bertie; that nice girl from Room With a View as the Queen Mum; an intense, earnest child as QE2. The bit players aren't as pretty but decorate the cast elegantly: Derek Jacobi’s cunning Archbishop, Michael Gambon's blustery George V. Anthony Andrews is an uncanny Baldwin but Timothy Spall's Churchill is too broadly caricatured.
Director Tom Hooper (Damned United), who nabbed an Oscar, tries to avoid the usual Merchant Ivory tropes but instead trips over a few tropes of his own—fussy camera movements, unorthodox compositions, intense close-ups—but generally provides good support for some excellent performances. Everyone’s best moment is at the pivotal scene at the story’s climax. Bertie’s live radio address to the nation on the outbreak of WWII is elegant and moving (though the irony of using the music of a German composer—Beethoven—to score a speech about war with Germany seems unintentional).
(The King's Speech, crowned Best Picture, comes to The Revue Thursday, March 10. If you've seen it, have another big-screen look at Rush and Firth's superb performances. And if you haven't seen it yet, you're in for a treat.)