Photo courtesy of See Saw Films
Review by Ryan Wilson
It’s easy sometimes to feel as if the days of precise elocution are behind us. In
this age of Facebook and Twitter, our public discourse can easily become dominated
by the random text and sound bite, which arguably make the art of giving a good old-
fashioned speech feel as antiquated as ancient Greece. All it takes, however, is one
national tragedy or emergency to remind us of the restorative power of public
I couldn’t help but dwell on such matters after watching The King’s Speech,
the tender tale of King George VI’s struggle with a lifelong speech impediment. The
film stars the ever-reliable Colin Firth as King George, or Bertie as his friends call
him, and the ever-flexible Geoffery Rush as his unorthodox therapist.
Structurally, the movie follows the feel-good blueprint found in most of these
types of overcoming personal obstacle plots. When we’re first introduced to Bertie,
then the Duke of York, he’s embarrassing himself while tripping through a speech at
Wembley Stadium after being asked to speak there by his demanding father, King
George V. That we see his utter failure is important in order for us to know how
large the mountain he needs to climb. Add to that Bertie’s own temper and shame
regarding his stutter, and the story almost tells itself.
What saves the film is Rush’s therapist, who feels more like a psychologist
than a speech specialist. He elevates the story because rather than focusing on the
effect, he focuses on the cause of the dysfunction, which of course is not comfortable
for a member of the ruling class. One simply does not speak about such personal
Thus the best scenes in the film are Rush and Firth hammering away at each
other in a stale and boxy room. In this sense, it’s not difficult to imagine the film
adapted to a stage play. I say this because, it’s truly an achievement to keep an
audience enraptured with prolonged conversation minus additional movement or
visuals. Rush and Firth do a magnificent job with this sort of “staged minimalism.”
Predictably, a sort of grudging friendship develops between the two, and
through their sessions together we get insights into each character. We see that each
man is dealing with insecurity, and each longs for transformation, a definite theme
throughout the film.
Add a few twists regarding the fate of each, and we inevitable come to the
climax where Bertie must deliver a monumental speech on the eve of war with
Germany. It literally feels as if the blitz will begin any minute as he delivers his
words, so he must succeed in comforting his beloved country.
I have some issue with Firth, or rather the acclaim he’s receiving due to his
performance. Last weekend he won best dramatic actor for this role at the Golden
Globes. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve to win, but watching his performance, I
wonder whether Firth deserves such acclaim, or if he’s just mastered an excellent
stammer. This is the type of role that critics always lavish praise upon because the
actor has excelled at playing the infirmity rather than the character suffering from
an illness. Nearly each year we see leading men from Daniel Day Lewis in My Left
Foot to John Hurt in The Elephant Man to Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump garner
nominations for portraying impaired individuals. Firth ultimately won me over not
for his stutter, but for his ability to make me care for him aside from the stutter. For
example, we see the pain in his eyes when he’s asked to tell his young daughters a
story before bed and can’t, and he also is equally unsympathetic at times, such as
when he’s bullying and speaking coarsely to others.
Rush, who has also played the suffering lead character to perfection in 1996’s
Shine, gets to be even more colorful here as the therapist. He controls his room, and
the tempo of the film. Through him a subtle message emerges that the common man
is always in control, king or no king. He rarely even acknowledges Bertie’s nobility.
Too much in the background are the historical events of the time, such as the
rise of Hitler and England’s foreign policy regarding him. Yet these developments are
what make the final speech, and its confident delivery, so very material. Instead the
film chooses to focus on Bertie’s conquering his stutter as a metaphor for his
perseverance regarding Germany. In the end, we’re not left thinking about the speech
itself but rather the performance of the speech, and I think we’re capable of grasping
But only a cynic wouldn’t be moved by The King’s Speech. As so often happens
during such moments, and such movies, after the words are delivered, the ideas rise
to meet our demands.
Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.
© Ryan Wilson, 2011