Like you, Thom, I am an Anglophile. I love all things British, from their flag to their television programming to their remarkably civilized and emotionally understated mannerisms (they make tea in the middle of crises. How delightful). But perhaps one of the things I love best is their astonishingly photogenic royal family. Yes, I’m one of those people (but my practicality beats out my romanticism every time; for example, I watched Will and Kate’s wedding on YouTube like seven hours after it happened, because let’s be realistic here, they got married at like four in the morning my time and I like sleep more than I like them, no matter how adorable they are).
I’ve always had a fascination with royalty. Not in a “I want to wear a crown and have high tea every single day and make everyone call me a pretty princess” kind of way, but in a “how interesting these people are to study” kind of way. It seems so strange to me that, a long time ago, we chose people to be our leaders. And hundreds of years later, we exalted those people’s descendants to celebrity status, even if it occasionally ended in revolution and widespread destruction. Some people like the royals and some people don’t, and it’s become an increasingly common topic of conversation because of the aforementioned couple of Cambridge, whose engagement, marriage, and first child have completely dominated the media over the last few years.
So what does all this have to do with The King’s Speech?
I also have a fascination with the World Wars. Maybe it’s because I was reading the Anne of Green Gables series and kind of fell into Rilla of Ingleside, which was just horrifically sad because Walter. Maybe it’s because they created global chaos, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in thousands of years since the marches of the great conquerors. Or maybe it’s because I feel sorry for the people who thought they knew what would happen and what they were getting themselves into. Because nobody ever does. We do the best we can with the lot we’re given, and some of us have a worse lot than others. And in The King’s Speech, Bertie has a pretty bad lot, because he’s the King of England on the brink of World War II and he’s rubbish at public speaking.
And trust me, that’s a worse problem than it seems.
On the outside, this is a story about a man who was perfectly happy being on the sidelines until he was forced into what is arguably one of the most important occupations in human history: national leadership in a time of war. And with the advancements of radio, his wartime speeches can’t just be published; no, he needs to speak, and he needs to inspire, and he needs to call to action. And that’s a problem for a man who’s stammered since he was a child. So after seeing every doctor in the Empire, he places his trust in an Australian specialist who teaches him that the potential for greatness was inside him the whole time.
On the inside, this is a story about a lifelong friendship forged between two unlikely people. It’s about bravery, duty, honour, sacrifice, fear, love, death, and life during one of the most tumultuous times “in the lives of most of us.” It’s thrilling, inspiring, uplifting, devastating, and entirely unlike anything I’d seen before, which means of course it won all the Oscars. Most importantly, though, it has Helena Bonham Carter, who is just the boss of everything.
So Thom, I don’t expect that you’ll enjoy this film. In fact, I quite expect you to hate it, or to say it’s overrated, or perhaps worse, to say it had no impact on you whatsoever. And that’s fine, because you’re entitled to your opinion, and because there’s no way I could objectively review this film myself. So best of luck to you, and remember, if you get nervous: “F*ck, f*ck, f*ck!”
by Thom Yee
“Public speaking is one of the most difficult, fearful things a person can do. Your breathing changes. Your heart rate changes. The temperature seems to suddenly go from 20 degrees to a thousand. Statically, 75% of people — that’s three out of every four people — suffer from speech anxiety, or glossophobia. Studies have found that fear of public speaking consistently ranks ahead of all other phobias. Phobias like a fear of spiders… a fear of heights… a fear of confined spaces… even death. Most people fear pubic speaking more than death.”
The previous is the opening of a talk I gave to a room of about 30 people. Having a bit of free reign over my speech topic and being the smartass I am, I thought giving a speech on public speaking would be pretty clever.
Inexplicably, I’m usually pretty good at public speaking. Despite my overriding insecurities, my misgivings about the world around me, and my complete faith that things will specifically and deliberately go wrong, I’m okay talking in front of crowds. As long as I believe in what I’m saying (as I tend to when I choose my own topic and write my own speech), I can put together and deliver something that has actual value and often even manages to entertain. The thing I like best about public speaking is that, by the nature of the act itself, people are listening to you. True, they won’t be listening for long if your material is weak (something I usually don’t have to worry about), but the very fact that you’re speaking in front of people is normally enough to gain at least a bit of attention. It’s probably the same reason I write — I can express my thoughts without interruption and with maximum provocative force, and once you’ve made the decision to start reading something of mine, I’m sure I can keep your attention for as long as I need it. Even the quietest, most passive, and utterly ignorable person has something to say. That person, even if they’re rarely seen or heard, has a voice.
That’s what The King’s Speech is about and why it’s such an obvious crowd pleaser.
In the case of King George VI (or at least Colin Firth’s King George VI as seen in this movie), public speaking wasn’t necessarily a fear, so much as a mechanical impossibility. Whether it was in front of a crowd giving an address or in front of his daughters telling a bedtime story, King George (or “Bertie” as he’s referred to by Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue and henceforth in this review) had a stammer. A pronounced stammer. A constant stammer. The kind of stammer that makes you feel sorry for him as he stumbles all over himself while everybody stares. You know the way you feel when somebody’s dying on stage so badly that you feel bad? That’s how you’re supposed to feel about Bertie. And while The King’s Speech glances over the notion of psychological reasoning for his inability, it doesn’t ever directly blame something as simple as a tortured past or a childhood trauma. It’s just one of those things that developed over time. So Helena Bonham Carter’s (soon-to-be-Queen) Elizabeth brings husband Bertie to Rush’s Logue for speech therapy and, through a series of theatrical exercises and a small amount of tension and drama over the course of years, Bertie manages to give a speech. And that’s the movie.
If you’re unfamiliar with world history (as I tend to be because “Why bother?” and “Quit living in the past; contemporize, man.”), you should know that Bertie was appointed king of the United Kingdom after his father’s (King George V) death and his brother’s (King Edward VIII) abdication for wanting to marry a twice-divorced American socialite. Basically, Bertie wasn’t really ever supposed to ascend to the throne, so when he does, his inability to sputter out more than three uninterrupted words proves a major problem. Also, World War II.
If there’s one thing The King’s Speech really drives home, it’s that we all have problems. Some people are cowardly, some people are worthless, and some people just look that way, cowardly or worthless. The movie opens with Bertie’s speech that closed the 1925 British Empire Exhibition, immediately giving viewers everything they need to feel sorry for a man who can’t talk in front of people. It’s something we’ve all felt, a common language of failure we’ve all experienced, whether it was show-and-tell in grade school, class presentations in college, or addressing the board at our company’s AGM. When you’re taken all the way from this initial failing to Bertie’s successful address to the nation, declaring war on Germany, it’s hard not to feel a small sense of euphoria and a great deal of relief. That’s where invisible proclamations like “A film that makes your spirit soar” and “Like all great films, it simply fills you with joy” (as seen on the movie’s various promotional pieces) come from.
On the other hand, the cynical side of me (spoiler alert: there’s a side of me that’s cynical) can’t help but put the entire thing in context. I’m not going to claim that I truly understand Bertie — his motivations, personal demons, or the contents of his soul — but let’s not forget that this is a guy who grew up rich and pampered as a son of the British aristocracy. He may have had a horrible, jarring, life-altering stammer, but he went to therapy and he got over it. His hardship(s) were nothing compared to, oh… let’s say… dying at the end of a bayonet during the second World War. When I was a kid, I could never relate to the idea of war on a global scale. I could read numbers like 50 to 80 million people died in World War II and not really give it a second thought, both because of the enormity of the numbers and because the passage of time made the whole thing seem so distant (and because the most important part about those numbers was remembering them for the test). Eventually though, you grow up, out of the gun phase of a hyper-violence-obsessed youth, and you realize that you never really want to see anyone get hurt, let alone 50 to 80 million killed in a world-encompassing war, one of two in as many years. That’s not this movie’s problem per se, but it is a sobering thought that I couldn’t help but recall at each of Bertie’s minor triumphs.
If I’m not mistaken, this is the first Academy-Award-winning film we’ve reviewed on GOO Reviews, or at least it’s the first we’ve reviewed that’s so associated with that honour. And it’s pretty obvious why. It’s got a nice, intriguing, somewhat historically accurate plot, a stellar cast, and it’s at least reasonably convincing in its trappings of cinematic superiority. Colin Firth is as great as ever, Helena Bonham Carter is everything we’ve grown to expect, and Geoffrey Rush continues to be one of the finest actors of any generation. And, of course, there’s Michael Gambon, who most of you know as the second Dumbledore and whom I always associate with making horrible turns on race tracks. It’s a British excellence-in-film-acting extravaganza. I guess. That’s all really table stakes when it comes to movies like The King’s Speech. Just like Michael Bay’s Transformers movies are specifically designed to bring in cash during the summer seasons, movies like The King’s Speech are obvious Oscar bait (ironically, the guy on the news I’m half watching while writing this review said “garbage in, garbage out” right in the middle of me typing the words Michael Bay’s Transformers). It’s to the creators’ credit that there’s no part of this movie that I could really pick apart or recommend changing, but that’s really just what you get when see a movie this accomplished. Being a Chinaman and, therefore, into cameras, I will say that I found the use of forced perspective and wide-angle lens distortion an inspired touch that really gives the film a sense of the claustrophobia that Bertie must’ve been feeling during many of his ordeals. In fact, the cinematography and overall colour palette all result in a surprisingly striking and visually engaging movie about some guy standing still while speaking into a microphone.
Ultimately, it’s a little deflating to look at the history that followed The King’s Speech. As the film tells us, King George’s broadcasts throughout World War II, all performed within Logue’s presence, would make him a symbol of national resistance and the two would remain friends for the rest of their lives. Which, for Bertie, was about another seven years after the war. What a horrible thought. That would’ve been such a dour, souring note to end the movie on, and, as much as it wouldn’t have made any overarching narrative sense to acknowledge this fact within the fullness of the film, it’s hard to reconcile my now soaring spirit and joy-filled heart with the idea that the guy died a few years later from heart disease. Sure, one of his daughters is still alive to this day (and I’ll leave it up to you to figure out who that is), but the fact of his soon-after-the-events-of-this-movie death can become such a pall on the entire film, and it really goes to show you how depressing it can be to discover the history of movie figures who also existed in real life. To which I again say “History? Why bother?” and “Quit living in the past; contemporize, man.”
If you were looking for me to hate a movie (Grace), The King’s Speech would be a poor choice. It’s a perfectly fine film, one that wears its Oscar intentions on its sleeve and that clearly illustrates what it means to win awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And, for most of us, including me, that usually means we’re going to like it at least a little bit. The performances are top notch, the historical perspective is intriguing, and it’s a story that’s fundamentally designed to lift you up. For me though, that moment will last only so long if I’m remembering that while we all loudly cheer for some king who got over his speech impediment, people were dying and alarm bells were ringing all over the second World War. It’s up to each of us which of those two we hear loudest.
The King’s Speech final score: 7.5