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The King's Speech

The King's Speech Poster

Mel Brooks (dressed as Louis XIV) once said (as he rapaciously hung over the bountiful cleavage of a French woman) that, "it's good to be the King." Being a prince with a speech impediment, not so much.

The King's Speech tells the true story of King George VI (played by Colin Firth) who struggled with a speech impediment, and finally found some help from an unorthodox commoner by the name of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).

The film starts by pointing out that approximately 1-in-4 people on the planet is a member of the British Commonwealth. Studies have proven conclusively that most people would rather face death than speak publicly. Imagine speaking to one quarter of the human race. The prince ('Bertie' to his family) has been asked to address the commonwealth on behalf of his father, King George V. He walks to the microphone and when he's live (no second takes in the age of radio) he stutters so badly that no one can understand him. Firth's helplessness is palpable.

After this opening scene the audience is shown a series of experts who have tried to help the Prince. One doctor asks him to fill his mouth (to the brim) with marbles and then try to speak. It's ludicrous and the prince tosses them out in frustration. He's tried every doctor available and none of them can help him. His wife (played by Helena Bonham Carter) tries the very last doctor she can find, Lionel Logue, an Australian who advertises himself as a speech therapist.

The clash of commoner and royalty is apparent from the start as Logue possesses none of the formality of the royals. He casually tells the princess that he has no secretary because he likes to 'keep things simple.' Unaware that she's a royal, Logue allows her to dictate a series of conditions, and then brusquely denies them all, saying, "It's my place, my rules."

Once he realizes he is addressing a royal, the rules change, but only a little. The prince arrives for his first session, and Logue forces the princess to wait outside his study. Logue explains to the prince that the therapy will require that they be equals, and starts by calling him 'Bertie'. There is some entertaining banter in which the protocols regarding the treatment of royals is pointed out. Logue waits quietly in a chair and the two men stare at one another. Logue eventually comments, "I was told that when meeting a royal that I should not speak until he or she speaks first, selecting a topic." 'Bertie' responds in a stutter that he might wait quite a while indeed.

The prince starts out the session quite sure that Logue will be just like the others, even after a series of probing questions from the therapist.

Logue: "Does your internal monologue stutter?"
Logue: "Do you stutter when you talk to yourself?"

Logue continues to provoke the prince, who laces into the therapist with a string of profanities.

Logue: "You don't stutter when you curse."

The prince is unimpressed, and finally Logue makes him a bet -- if Logue cannot show him some progress in this very first session, then he'll owe him a half-pence. 'Bertie' replies, "I don't carry money." The prince eventually leaves, sure that the session was useless, but later realizes that Logue really did know what he was doing, and returns, half-pence in hand.

The strange pair slowly become friends and the underlying reasons for Bertie's stutter are revealed. The plot comes to a head when Bertie is thrust into the role of King when his older brother (Guy Pearce), who ascends to the throne, is shown to be unsuited to the role. His brother yearns to live as an ordinary (but very extraordinarily wealthy) person, free to marry American actresses, etc.

All this happens against the threatening backdrop of a rising Nazi Germany. At one point Bertie views a newsreel of Hitler speaking, gesturing wildly. He remarks, "I don't know what he's saying, but he's saying it very well." Bertie laments his speech defect, as it's crucial to his only serious power -- the power to inspire. He rages, "I can't pass a law, or give someone a ticket!" When it is finally time for Bertie to ascend to the throne after his brother abdicates, his need to conquer his stutter becomes more important than ever before.

The King's Speech is probably one of the most easily accessible period pieces to come around in quite some time. There's humor here, and the interactions between Rush and Firth are a joy to behold. One is a commoner and the other a royal, and together they must swap roles -- or at least give up all pretense of class. They become teacher and student and eventually friends.

Firth masters the physical demands of miming the infirmity of stuttering but where he really shines is his ability to project a man yearning to be great, trapped by a cruel infirmity -- bottled up by it. That desire and need to inspire bubbles up through the stuttering and stammering.

Rush provides a perfect counterweight as the unabashedly common Logue, who treats the prince as an equal, just another patient -- which is actually a step up for the prince, who is treated as weak, unimportant, or unfit. Rush's therapist breaks through the walls that have sprung up around Bertie that simultaneously protect him as a royal but also block him off from any kind of real growth beyond his speech defect.

This is a great film that shouldn't be missed. Don't be put off by the thought of a political period piece -- The King's Speech is anything but dull.

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