It’s hard to believe that an account of a stammering royal getting speech therapy could make for so excellent and enjoyable a film. There’s more to it that that, including the Duke of York’s being unexpectedly forced by his elder brother’s irresponsibility into a role he’d never expected or wanted to play.
Screenwriter David Seidler was drawn to the story in part because he himself had stuttered as a child. Some years ago wrote to the Queen Mother to ask permission to make a film about her late husband’s stammer and speech therapy. She asked him to wait until she was dead, because the memories were too painful. He respected her wishes, though she lived past 100. By the time the film was made Seidler was 74, which meant that he set the record for the oldest winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. (Surprisingly, the distinction lasted but one year, until 76-year-old Woody Allen won for Midnight in Paris.)
Colin Firth plays Bertie, the second son of George V, (Michael Gambon) who looks, sounds, and acts as one would expect a king to do. Bertie’s older brother David (Guy Pearce) is a suave but selfish fool, having become hopelessly infatuated with a manipulative American woman who is not only twice divorced but still married to her third husband and simultaneously carrying on with a used car salesman. When George V dies and David is crowned King Edward VIII, his insistence on marrying his lover leads to a crisis that culminates in his abdication and Bertie’s being named King George VI on the eve of World War II. The film’s title has a double meaning, referring not just to Bertie’s stammer but also to his need to deliver a critically important speech by radio to the nation and the empire at the start of Britain’s entry into the Second World War.
Bertie’s totally devoted wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) had already arranged for him to start speech lessons with an eccentric Australian and failed actor named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Logue proves to be the first therapist able to help. That, and the friendship that develops between the men, is the focus of the story.
There are many memorable scenes, as when Mrs. Logue (Jennifer Ehle)—who has no idea her husband is treating a member of the royal family—comes home early and finds the Queen of England sipping tea at her dining table. She handles the shock admirably well, even when their two husbands come join them, which creates a bit of an awkward moment because Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth were briefly an item off-screen when they starred opposite each other in the BBC adaptation of Bride and Prejudice. Other scenes are quite moving, such as those showing Bertie’s great affection for his daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. When he becomes king and his daughters curtsey to him as their monarch rather than their father, you can almost sense Bertie’s pain.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Because so many major actors are involved it’s hard not to be memontarily—but only momentarily—distracted by seeing Dumbledore as George V, two of Voldemort’s major allies as Bertie’s wife and Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall), the Emperor Claudius (who had a speech impediment himself) as the Archbishop of Canterbury (Derek Jacobi), and the captain of the ghost ship in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies as the king’s speech therapist and friend.
The ratings people at the MPAA gave the film an R simply because at a couple of points Logue encourages Bertie to swear, which he can do almost completely without stammering, and Bertie extemporizes a whole string of “fucks” along with some other four-letter words. The problem isn’t that he said “fuck” or said “fuck” more than once, it’s that he supposedly said too many. I’m not sure what the limit is (the MPAA normally keeps such things secret), but apparently if you say “fuck” N times it’s perfectly OK for teenagers to see the film, but if you say it N+1 times their delicate young ears must be protected. As Roger Ebert and others have pointed out, this is idiotic, since the film is in fact something young people would profit from seeing even with a few extra fucks thrown in, not just because they’ll learn some history but because they’ll learn some things about decency and courage and compassion and duty.
Seidler wrote the script based on very little information about the real Lionel Logue, but a few weeks before filming began, he and the director, Tom Hooper, learned that Logue’s grandson lived not very far from Hooper’s home in London, and they went to see him. The grandson did not know much beyond the fact that his grandfather had treated the king for his stammer, but he looked around and managed to find something in his grandfather’s effects that neither he nor anyone else had realized existed—Logue’s handwritten diaries and notes, which proved full of details about his professional and personal relationship with the king. Fortunately there was enough time to incorporate some of the diary into the script.
There’s a scene capped with a nice exchange between Logue and his friend. Bertie has just made it through a speech with Logue’s aid, and Logue tweaks him for having stuttered a bit on the Ws. Bertie replies that he had to throw a few in just so they’d know it was really him. Those lines weren’t written by Seidler; they were taken from the diary.
Logue was with King George VI during every speech of his reign and even sat with the royal family during his coronation. They remained friends until the end.
Incidentally, one of the funnier aspects of the story is the horror expressed by the king’s associates that he was receiving speech therapy from someone who was not only without credentials in the field but not even British, and even worse, Australian. I was hoping the film would end with the king standing confidently before a microphone and cheerfully saying, “G’day!”
And here’s a trailer for the forthcoming American remake: