Any story seems bigger when it involves a king. The ancient Greeks understood this. Most of Shakespeare’s plays could be subtitled: To Your Highness, With Love. Even my old (Marxist) creative writing professor used royalty to explain the difference between story and plot, e.g. the king died and then the queen died (story); the king died and then the queen died of grief (plot). Other than stick-in-the-mud republicans, we all pant at the mention of kings. There’s even a word – majesty – which specifies what we find so fascinating; you can’t be truly majestic unless you’re a monarch. If none of this chimes… if you hate royalty and hereditary privilege… you’re gonna be spitting blood as you watch The King’s Speech.
Here is the heart-rending tale of a rich man who can’t even order his butler around. Alas, he has a speech impediment. Apart from singing and cursing, Prince Albert, Duke of York (not to be confused with “Prince Albert”, the male genital piercing), is struck dumb by his stammer. He lives in terror of making public announcements, and seems destined to be a figure in the background of history. That is, until his father, King George V shuffles off the mortal coil, and his brother, King Edward VIII, abdicates the throne. Then “Bertie”, as the Prince is known to his intimates, is left with little choice but to start speaking. This movie is the story of how he found his voice, with the help of a commoner named Lionel Logue.
No-one is ever going to cast Colin Firth as a Pennsylvania coal miner, but he was practically born to play a king. Firth is as English as a monogrammed handkerchief. If you want stifled feelings, he’s your man. Ever since he played Mister Darcy in a BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, he’s been withholding his heart in the most dashing way possible. Tom Ford almost secured Firth his first Oscar for A Single Man, where Firth played a gay version of the lovelorn toff he’s made his trademark. Repression is never as tumescent as when channelled through Firth. He’s like a dam waiting to burst…through a cummerbund. As a stammering sovereign, he brings a leading man’s virility to Prince Albert which the real prince would have envied rotten. You never doubt Firth’s authority, and it’s the tension between his stature and his speech defect which gives the movie oomph.
I once met the man who plays Lionel Logue, outside Stringfellows nudie-bar in London. From that time on, I’ve have a soft spot for Geoffrey Rush. On the night in question, I was walking past Stringfellows (I hasten to add); Geoffrey Rush was moving purposefully towards its doors. He scarcely noticed me, such was his ardour for strippers that night, but I’ve always felt we made a connection, even if it was more like two drunken tourists colliding outside a strip club. In The King’s Speech, Rush is verbose and somewhat naughty, as usual. If Colin Firth was born to play a king, then Geoffrey was born to play a Fool, one of those therapeutic jesters you find in Shakespeare, who salve the conscience with a joke.
No king can be great without a great queen, of course, and The King’s Speech benefits immensely from casting Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth. That horse whip voice of hers – arch, stiff and aristocratic – is perfect for a stalwart royal who liked gin as much as ceremony. You can sense the mischief in her, but it’s like hearing laughter from up in a high tower; Helena makes clear the distinction Elizabeth sees between her public and private face. She is not a modern, I’m-no-different-than-you princess; like the actress playing her, she can be caustic, as well as kind. But when she pats Colin Firth on the shoulder before his big speech, there isn’t a man capable of feeling who wouldn’t want her for a wife.
This is a movie about conquering fear, respecting duty, and assuming leadership. On those terms, it shouldn’t matter if the hero is a king. We’re with Prince Albert because he’s a man of substance. All that’s crappy about royalty is embodied in his brother; the boozy, sex-fiend, Nazi-sympathiser, Prince Edward. Him we can boo. “Bertie”, on the other hand, is worthy of cheering because he does the one thing we ask of our leaders: he doesn’t shame the people who offer him their strength. There is dignity in deference, as long as those in power do not take that courtesy for granted, or fail to live up to their office. In The King’s Speech, George VI becomes a king, for his people, when his oratory matches their resolve.