When you are a person of affluence and influence, perceived as a social better within not only your corner of the world, but the remaining corners as well, there must be an immense pressure to not only fill that part, but be perfectly fitted to it. Any weakness - whether real or fabricated, physical or spiritual - has to be either rooted out or patched over, otherwise that failing - no matter its severity - ultimately becomes the fatal flaw that ends you, be it socially or economically or, well, whatever. Perhaps worse, when the problem is a physiological one, it can be seen by those who surround you - even those whom you love and respect - as something of a character defect, one that you could defeat if only you tried a little bit harder, cared a little bit more. To them (and maybe even to you), it's a crack in the window that will most certainly spider across the surface, until one day a collapse will certainly come, with nothing left behind but shards.
"The King's Speech," now available on DVD and Blu-ray disc, is the rather remarkable story of the man who would eventually be England's King George VI, and how he struggled mightily throughout his life against a stutter that caused him to doubt his own ability to be an effective leader, until he developed a friendship with an unorthodox speech teacher.
We first meet him in 1925, when as the Duke of York (or "Bertie," as he is called by those closest to him) he cannot read aloud a letter that his father, George V, has given him to present to a worldwide radio audience. Colin Firth's deservedly Oscar-winning portrayal takes you face-to-face with the man: you can feel the man's sheer, desperate terror as he approaches the microphone for the first time. As his throat and mouth fail him, it is nearly impossible not to be moved.
Bertie's stutter doesn't affect the love his wife (played by Helena Bonham Carter in an Oscar-nominated role) or children have for him - he is obviously a fine father and husband. But his own father (portrayed by Michael Gambon) seems to have little patience or understanding, while his older brother (played by Guy Pearce), the Prince of Wales who will eventual be King Edward VIII, sees him as an inferior.
After another quack speech therapist comes and goes without providing a whit of real help, Bertie's plucky wife seeks out a man named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, in a wonderful - and Oscar-nominated - performance) to attempt to do something for her profoundly discouraged husband. Logue, an Australian who had come to England with dreams of acting on its stages, has decidedly different therapeutic methods than the others had offered - stretching exercises, breathing exercises, singing words instead of speaking them, even shouting and swearing (a scene of which, rightly or wrongly, earned this genial film an "R" rating).
But he also wants Bertie to dig deeper, to reach back into his childhood and talk about the earliest years of his life. Logue eventually coaxes some deeply painful memories out of Bertie, about the mockery from his brother, the lack of compassion from his father, the abusive actions of his nanny. All of these things have obviously weighed heavily on Bertie; these factors most likely did not cause him to develop his speech impediment, but they certainly didn't help him rid himself of it.
When his brother decides to abdicate the throne to marry a divorced American woman, Bertie has the added weight of the crown put on him, while Europe teeters on the brink of war. Even though the king is no longer the head of the government by this time in history, Bertie longs to provide the kind of steadying leadership for his subjects that his father did when he delivered his Christmastime radio addresses toward the end of his reign. And when Hitler invades Poland, Bertie - with Logue's guidance - must seize the opportunity to prove to himself and his subjects worldwide that he can be the leader they need him to be.
"The King's Speech" is a rich, satisfying film that will engross you and move you. The performances are terrific, humanizing some characters that could have come off as cold and remote. (You'll note that I call George VI by his nickname throughout my comments; that's because Bertie is the man you meet here, not some distant royal figure.) The movie's screenplay won an Academy Award for its author, David Seidler, who had wanted to write it for many years; it's apparent that he knew these people and this story inside and out. Director Tom Hooper (another Oscar winner) lets the characters breathe and grow while bringing this peek into a very private part of English royal history to life.
This is the kind of movie that you'll be glad you experienced and that you'll recommend to others. Four stars (out of four).