I would be far from the first person to suggest formulas continue to be used because they work. Admittedly they are usually fallbacks for hack writers and the final product isn’t anything to cheer about. Other times, much more rarely, a formula picture works, reminding us why the story became a formula in the first place.
The King’s Speech is about as formulaic as they come. It doesn’t go anywhere we don’t expect, but it still draws us in and works for several reasons that make us, if not forget about, at least ignore the formula. First, there’s something satisfying about seeing the British Royal Family behind closed doors with the same foibles that any common man or woman might possess. Of course, intellectually we know this to be true, but there is an equalizing power to actually seeing the struggles of King George VI with his nearly debilitating stammer. For most of us a stammer would be an embarrassing, but not fatal handicap, but for King George it hindered his ability to represent and guide Great Britain in the years leading up to the Second World War.
That satisfaction is tempered by Colin Firth’s extraordinary performance as the stammering king. The conflict between his duty and his speaking limitations is palpable and the sympathy we feel real. As we would expect, he puts on a brave face, but we sense the deep frustration and psychological trauma from being born in the public eye with massive expectations. Over the course of the film Prince Albert (later King George) expresses these psychological stresses more explicitly as he grows closer to his non-traditional speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
In another fine performance (does he ever give us bad ones?), Geoffrey Rush plays a man who eschews commonly accepted speech therapy methodology for his own. Albert’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), finds Logue after years of sampling traditional therapists to no avail. Logue is the speech therapist of last resort but he demands a level playing field and demolishes all pretentions of social difference, something that proves difficult for Albert in the beginning.
And we all know where the story goes from there: Albert and Logue have a rocky relationship as they build a bond, but they get too close causing a rupture in their relationship, but are brought back together for a momentous event. We’ve seen this a thousand times in movies about an unlikely person succeeding in a sport or a disabled person overcoming their handicap.
What we haven’t seen in this formula is the intervention of history on such a personal level. For the first half of the film, Albert isn’t supposed to be king. His brother, Edward, is next in line for the throne. This makes Albert’s stammer uncomfortable and inconvenient, but not critical. But when his brother abdicates in favor of marrying a divorced (horror!) American (maybe even worse!), Prince Albert suddenly becomes King George VI.
Albert shows more character than his brother Edward (Guy Pearce). The movie depicts Edward as a man more interested in his personal fulfillment with a woman he knows he cannot marry as king, even as the country stumbles toward war with Germany. (That Edward and his wife, Wallis Simpson, may have been more sympathetic to Nazi Germany than they should have been probably made his abdication wise in the long run.) Albert, however, didn’t have the option of abdicating. How would it have looked to British subjects and the world to have two monarchs abdicate in a matter of months? Great Britain needed a strong figurehead – without the stammer. The climax of the picture – Albert’s speech to the nation announcing war with Germany – stands as an emotionally satisfying conclusion. That Albert and his wife went on to become symbols of resistance, refusing to leave or to send their children out of London when everyone advised them to do so, reminds us how crucial that speech was for morale at home.
The performances make this picture successful. Colin Firth may get an Oscar (though I still think he deserved it for last year’s A Single Man) for molding a reserved, but emotionally rich character. He doesn’t have many opportunities to express his emotions; everything is repressed, or trying to be repressed. We see the emotion there, Albert struggling to keep it all under the surface with occasional bouts of temper, his only moments of relief. Also deserving recognition are Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, and smaller roles by Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, and Derek Jacobi.
In the end The King’s Speech is a solid, if not great film, raised a couple of levels by some fine acting. I fully expect to see it pile up nominations at Oscar time – the acting nominations will be deserved, the best picture and writing nominations maybe less so (though it is well directed by Tom Hooper). It is still well worth seeing in this busy movie month.