According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means…if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” — Jerry Seinfeld
When we meet Prince Albert (Colin Firth), he is terrified, trembling mess. It’s 1925, and the Duke of York is third in line to the British throne. He’s been ordered to deliver a few remarks at Wembley Stadium, where tens of thousands have gathered for an exhibition. This would be nerve-racking for just about anybody, but the anxiety is only amplified for the young prince: He has a profound stammer. Words often freeze in his mouth, while a look of agony spreads across his face. Albert stumbles over his speech like a wayward hurdler, while the crowd listens in stunned silence.
This sets up the fascinating drama of The King’s Speech, in which a man must conquer both his disability and his greatest dread in one swoop. In the aftermath of his Wembley debacle, the prince consults with several alleged speech experts. Their methods, such as cramming the prince’s mouth with marbles, are both archaic and comically ineffective. At this point, Albert seems resigned to his fate. In the olden days, he notes ruefully, his legacy would be exclusive to oil paintings and statues. Now, everything is preserved in audio and film. To millions, he’ll be the prince who stammers.
It’s here that Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) happens upon an unorthodox solution. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) is a middle-aged Australian commoner. He’s an eccentric speech therapist who moonlights as a Shakespearean actor. Logue has no formal training, but he has found success in managing even considerable speech impediments. His techniques seem like a blend of theatrical elocution exercises and common sense remedies to quell anxiety.
Naturally, the two men instantly clash. Albert is mercurial and intensely private, with layers of armor to hide his fear and insecurity. Meanwhile, Logue is unflappable, direct, and surprisingly informal: He even refers to the prince as “Bertie,” an endearment normally reserved for close friends and family. Albert bristles at this cage-rattling and storms out. Once again, his stammer seems meant to be.
At the same time, an extinction-level storm brews for the monarchy. Albert’s father, King George V (Michael Gambon), has become gravely ill. Prince David (Guy Pearce), the eldest prince and heir presumptive, displays an alarmingly callow attitude to his imminent ascension to the throne. What’s worse, David has fallen for Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), a married American woman. She plans to divorce her current husband and marry the prince, which will set off a cataclysmic scandal that could rock the monarchy, if not abolish it altogether. Within days of this unfolding drama, Albert becomes an increasingly viable alternative to become king.
This means that Albert will also have to manage his stammer, at all costs. He gives Logue another shot, and the two men slowly forge a genuine friendship. Albert learns the proper tricks to conceal his impediment, while Logue becomes a sympathetic ear. We learn of the prince’s difficult relationship with his father, and multiple tragedies in his youth.
As Albert becomes King George VI, war spreads through Europe. Now, the new king will have to find a calm, consoling voice to soothe his shellshocked people. That makes Lionel Logue a crucial part of the war effort.
For all its regnal bearing and opulent visuals, the bulk of Speech is an intimate character study, a two-hander between the prince and his unlikely teacher. Their dynamic coalesces around a central irony: Albert has built a life around knowing how to keep to himself, while Logue’s missive is to give him a proper voice.
As the film leans heavily on Firth and Rush, both men oblige with all-world performances. Firth takes great care to shape Albert into a three-dimensional human: He’s decent, loving, intelligent, and flawed. An ugly temper billows out of him; snarky words fly before he can reel them back. Rush plays Logue as irreverent, off-kilter, and quietly brilliant. He’s the confidante and conscience Albert never knew he needed. In an environment of sycophants, Logue provides unvarnished, invaluable truth.
The King’s Speech somehow succeeds on multiple levels: It offers a meticulous recreation of tumultuous events in British history. Director Tom Hooper also delivers a biopic of King George VI, a complex figure who helped guide the Commonwealth through World War II. But beyond all that, this is an incisive, inspirational study of a man learning to manage his disability and master his fear. This won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Firth). All were well-deserved.
119 min. R. Amazon Video.