I found myself in an animated conversation about The King’s Speech with the heavily tattooed twentysomething who rang up my purchase at Borders. “That was a great movie!” he said enthusiastically when he saw the title of the soundtrack I was buying.
I told my parents about this, remarking that if the movie had reached even this unlikely audience member, it was bound to be a smash hit. “So what’s the appeal?” my dad wanted to know.
I had to think about it. Most of us are used to seeing people flock to movies about things that smash and crash and blow up. True, there’s always been an audience for British period dramas, but that doesn’t explain the kind of audience numbers that The King’s Speech is getting. Fueled by hugely positive word of mouth, the film – which was playing in only 700 theaters over New Year’s weekend, when I saw it — averaged a whopping $10,927 per screen. By that measurement, it blew away every other film in the top ten (Little Fockers, in the #1 slot, averaged $7,400 per screen). Since then it’s been steadily climbing the charts, shooting up to #4 this weekend after expanding to wide release.
But why? Trying to tell my parents about the movie, I couldn’t come up with a description that seemed adequate. The story of a king’s struggle against a speech impediment — it doesn’t sound like a major crowd-pleaser. But the truth is, the film is about much more than that.
The King’s Speech is set in the 1930s, when Britain was facing a growing threat from abroad and political turmoil at home. It focuses on Bertie (Colin Firth, in a Golden-Globe–winning performance), Duke of York and the second son of King George V (Michael Gambon). Bertie is more than content to let his older brother, David (Guy Pearce), inherit the throne. Burdened with a terrible stutter, Bertie doesn’t do well in social situations, to put it mildly. The radio addresses and public speeches that he is forced to give turn into disasters.
Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), finally persuades him to work with unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who has him try everything from speaking tongue twisters, to singing his words, to swearing a blue streak (the reason for the film’s R rating). At the beginning, the duke dislikes everything about this odd commoner and his approach, and fights him at every turn.
But Bertie’s father is dying, and his brother cares about nothing but his own romance with a married American woman, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). David wants to marry Wallis, even though in those days a divorcee would be persona non grata at court. Bertie begins to sense that he must prepare himself for a role that he never wanted.
Forced to keep seeing Logue, Bertie reluctantly starts to open up to him about his troubles as they work together. The movie becomes the story of an improbable, touching, and often hilarious friendship.
But this isn’t just a high-end buddy movie either. #more#At the heart of the film is Bertie’s rock-solid sense of duty, honor, and responsibility. After his father dies and his brother takes the throne as Edward VIII, it is these values that sharply differentiate the two brothers. It’s fascinating to see how this film portrays David, whose famous romance has been dramatized in films with flattering titles like The Woman He Loved. Here, instead of a great romantic, David is shallow, selfish, and even cruel. At a family party, he taunts Bertie mercilessly about his stutter, until his younger brother is backed up against the wall, looking as though he’d sink to the floor without it.
It’s mentioned that David was an incorrigible womanizer even before taking up with Wallis Simpson, and Bertie tells Logue that there was a time when he was willing enough to take advantage of his older brother’s introductions to women of dubious character. But Bertie ended up choosing something better: marriage to a strong, supportive woman, and fatherhood of two daughters he adores. Compared with the happy home life that is Bertie’s source of peace and comfort, David’s single-minded obsession with party girl Wallis doesn’t look like much.
For all his fear and anguish over his shortcomings, Bertie has tremendous inner strength — more strength than he realizes — because he values the right things. He knows that the British people need a strong leader to unite and inspire them, and when it becomes clear that there’s no one else to do it, he is determined to face up to his responsibilities and make himself into that leader.
“You have such perseverance, Bertie,” says Logue (who has little use for his royal title), and he’s not just talking about speech therapy. When his brother finally abdicates and Bertie takes the throne as King George VI, he’s already come a long way. But after Britain declares war on Germany, he faces another hurdle, one that might look small to others but is huge for him: He has to give a live radio address to the nation.
It’s in this brilliantly filmed climactic sequence, when the king of England faces the microphone, that we truly grasp the real issue. Bertie’s need to find his voice wasn’t about himself. With Logue there to guide and encourage him, with his wife and children listening from a nearby room, with an anxious nation awaiting his words, we understand what Bertie has always understood: that a great man is one who lives his life for and with others. Sustained by family and friends, he can fight against his own weaknesses and give freely of himself to those who need him.
Such depictions of manhood, family, and friendship are exceedingly rare in today’s films. And in the final analysis, I think they’re what give The King’s Speech its power. The movie is inspirational in the best sense of that much-abused word; ditching the tired Hollywood tropes about following your heart and chasing your dreams for your own sake, it offers something much deeper than the standard “feel-good movie.” If packed theaters and excited young tattooed guys are any indication, it’s something that audiences have been craving.