“In the past, all a king had to do was look good in uniform,” observes King George V (Michael Gambon)—the first British monarch to address his subjects via radio—early on in Tom Hooper’s splendid period drama The King’s Speech. “Now we must invade people’s homes and ingratiate ourselves,” he continues. “We’ve become actors!” And this was 1934, three decades before the landmark BBC television documentary Royal Family brought the House of Windsor even closer to the people, and five before Lady Diana Spencer irrevocably blurred the line between commoner and royal, princess and pop icon. George V’s comments are directed at his youngest son, Albert Frederick Arthur George (Colin Firth), who will soon be thrust upon the throne just as England readies to enter World War II. But unlike his sober, stentorian-voiced father, the eventual George VI (father of Queen Elizabeth II) is hopelessly tongue-tied when it comes to public speaking, the victim of an acute stammer that turns ordinary conversation into a humiliating succession of false starts and too-long pauses.
If The King’s Speech risks being too cute by half in its depiction of how this royal without a voice comes to find one in his nation’s hour of need, Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler neatly avoid that trap by training their sights on a much bigger subject—namely, how the wireless waves of radio affected seismic changes to the nature of politics and society at large, turning public figures into performers, and narrowing the distance between classes. Yet amidst all the ballyhoo about Hooper’s film as The Social Network’s chief rival for Oscar gold, few if any have noted the extent to which the two movies orbit a similar central theme—two portraits of a communications revolution, separated by a century.
We first see the king-to-be (then Duke of York) freezing at the mic during his closing speech of the 1925 Empire Exhibition at Wembley. After being subjected to a succession of useless therapies by a series of royal quacks, the Duke takes a grudging chance on one Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian-born amateur actor and self-taught speech therapist with no credentials other than his own track record. What follows suggests a role-reversal My Fair Lady, with the lowly Antipodean coaching the aristocrat through measures (rolling around on the ground, shouting streams of obscenities) that have more in common with radical psychotherapy than conventional speech pathology.
Conducting the sessions in a draughty basement room with unfinished walls, Logue adds insult to injury by asking His Royal Highness leading questions about his childhood—an inventory of other forcibly corrected “defects,” including left-handedness and knock knees—and calling him by his family nickname, “Bertie.” (He insists that, in order for the treatment to work, the two men must regard each other as equals.) Their back-and-forth repartee, courtesy of Seidler (a septuagenarian Hollywood vet whose most notable prior credit was on Francis Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream), is as sharp as anything this side of Aaron Sorkin. Even sharper, arguably, is the film’s sense of the high value placed on normalcy in a society with little tolerance for disability and aberration.
These are the sort of plum roles that can all too easily turn into smoked ham, but Firth and Rush manage them with an ideal balance of flourish and restraint. Hooper, who has become something of a specialist in exhuming British history from the mothballs of Masterpiece Theatre—his credits include Elizabeth I (05) and the masterful Longford (06), as well as The Damned United (09)—does so again, shooting in long takes and exaggerated wide angles that amplify Bertie’s mounting sense of uncertainty as he finds the weight of the world—and so many words—upon his shoulders.