Right. Well, from what I’d heard of this film – Australian speech therapist plus 1930s British politics plus dysfunctional royal family – it sounded just my cup of tea. Then it started attracting rave reviews from critics, and reports of standing ovations in cinemas. Then just about everyone I knew said, “Michelle! Haven’t you seen it yet? You’ll love it!” The problem with this sort of hype is that it creates enormous expectations that can rarely be met. It makes me put off seeing the film for weeks, then slouch into the cinema, cross my arms and raise a very sceptical eyebrow at the screen.
I am happy to say that, in this case, my friends were quite right. I did enjoy this film very, very much. Colin Firth does a superb job of turning Bertie into an endearing and poignant character. All the British kings of the twentieth century were completely useless, but King George the Sixth (as Bertie becomes during the film) was even more useless than most of his forebears. The best that can be said about him is that at least he wasn’t his elder brother, David, whose Fascist sympathies and appalling choice of wife would have been a disaster during the war. The film demonstrates how ridiculous the idea of a monarchy is in the modern world, and how sad and suffocating it must be for those born into reigning families. I like that even Bertie asks whether there’s any point to being a king. He has no real political power. All he can do is wear flashy uniforms and give speeches, and poor Bertie finds speech almost impossible. But at least he has a supportive wife. (And I thought Helena Bonham Carter was excellent as Queen Elizabeth – it’s so nice to see her playing someone other than a homicidal maniac once in a while.)
The best part of the film for me, though, was Lionel. I’m not a huge fan of Geoffrey Rush (his performances so often scream, “Look at me, here I am winning an Oscar!”), but he was perfect for this role. I absolutely adored the Logue family and would have loved to have seen more of them, especially the bookish younger son. They were so warm, funny and Australian – such a contrast to the stuffy British royals. The speech therapy sessions were fascinating, although I must admit I cringed at some of the ‘facts’ Lionel presented. Actually, stuttering (or stammering, as it’s called in the film) ISN’T caused by cruel parents and siblings. It usually manifests itself long before “four or five years of age” – in fact, it usually appears when a child first starts to put words together. It’s a motor speech disorder with clear evidence of a genetic basis, although, yes, many people who stutter find their speech becomes less fluent in situations where they feel anxious. And I’m proud to say that Australian speech pathologists are still leading the world in stuttering research and that the renowned Lidcombe programme for the treatment of early stuttering was named after the Lidcombe campus of the University of Sydney, where I trained as a speech pathologist (and no, the Lidcombe programme does not involve teaching children to swear).
Er, sorry – will take off my speech pathologist hat now and replace it with my historical novelist hat. Generally, I try not to have very high expectations of historical accuracy in films. If the story is engaging, the acting is good and the costumes and sets are pretty (which is certainly true for this film), I’ll go along with minor issues of historical revisionism. So, I wasn’t too concerned that everyone in the film seemed to be treating Hitler as a serious threat long before the war began. But – King George the Fifth warning Bertie about Hitler’s plans to conquer Europe? Very, very unlikely. The real Bertie actually sent cheery birthday greetings to Hitler in April, 1939, only five months before war was declared. I was also surprised to see Winston Churchill castigating David during the abdication crisis scene. In fact, Churchill very publicly supported David at the time, and said, with characteristic hyperbole, that if the King was forced to abdicate, “the outrage so committed would cast its shadow across many chapters of the history of the British Empire”. (I must admit, though, that I was a bit distracted during that part of the film because I kept thinking, ‘What’s Peter Pettigrew doing there?’ and expecting him to transform into a rat. That’s the problem with British films, all those wonderful but very familiar actors. Look, there’s Dumbledore pretending to be King George the Fifth! And Bellatrix has had a perm and put on some pearls!) The film also ignored the fact that Bertie toured the United States and Canada – and gave a number of successful speeches – in early 1939, months before the ‘King’s Speech’ of September, 1939.
But never mind all that historical nitpicking – this is a charming, beautifully-produced film with lots of sparkling dialogue and moments of real emotion. Haven’t you seen it yet? You’ll love it!