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Monarchy at the Movies: The King’s Speech

November 4, 2010

George VI: From stammer to stiff upper lip.

The King’s Speech, opening in cinemas November 24, looks to be a winner and, for us AngloFiles and -philes, a must-see. Set in the lead-up to World War II and starring Colin Firth and Helena Bonham-Carter—

Well, enough said.

Okay, a bit more: The movie stars two of England’s most intelligent screen actors (the versatile Bonham-Carter easily inhabits everyone from Merchant-Ivory heroines to a surreal Alice in Wonderland) as King George VI and his consort. A sprightly telling of a little-known episode in the monarchy’s history, it recalls the future king’s resorting to a clever Australian commoner for help with his crippling speech impediment. The homey encounter between George, known to family as “Bertie,” and irreverent therapist Lionel Logue expands to take in the far larger drama when Bertie, the Man Who Wouldn’t Be King, was forced on the eve of world war to assume his brother’s cast-off crown—one of the monarchy’s most parlous episodes and easily the House of Windsor’s most precarious moment, at least until the death of Princess Diana.

The film’s already winning awards and being bruited as Oscar material. If its emotional touch is deft, that sensitivity undoubtedly stems from the fact that screenwriter David Seidler contended himself with a stutter. As a child, hearing the wartime king speak with confidence on the radio inspired him and his parents to think “maybe there was hope for me,” Seidler told the New York Times. He based the script on Logue’s own diaries but waited to make the film, at the request of George’s widow, the Queen Mother, until after her death.

The Woman He Loved: Wallis with Edward.

George VI was forced onto the throne when his brother, the popular and rakish Edward VIII, relinquished it to marry disreputable American divorcée Wallis Simpson. Frail and quiet, Bertie had been content to live a cosseted life as Duke of York  with his charming Duchess, the former Elizabeth Bowes-Lyons, and their daughters, the future Queen  Elizabeth II and her sister, Margaret.

Even with his brother still on the throne, Bertie dreaded the public eye—and microphones. It was an impending and dreaded tour of Australasia, with all the public speaking that entailed, that inspired his plucky wife to engage Logue in 1926. Bertie himself had soured on therapists. “He entered my consulting room … a slim, quiet man with tired eyes,” clearly beaten down by his disability, Logue wrote in his diary, as quoted in William Shawcross’s The Queen Mother. “It is hard to exaggerate the almost instant, indeed superb effect Logue had upon the Duke’s self-confidence,” Shawcross concludes.

Charles with Diana on tour (in Indonesia): Hardly "thankful she came too."

The movie implicates insecurities stemming from a severe upbringing as a cause of Bertie’s weakness; though genial in public, his father, George V, ran a rigid, judgmental household. Logue’s journal accounts are rife with breathing exercises and tongue-twisters, but perhaps for dramatic effect, The King’s Speech homes in on the psychological breakthrough he effected for the Australasian tour and, later, the far weightier circumstance of world war.

The self-trained, straight-talking Logue had honed his technique on shell-shocked veterans of World War I. His unconventional methods included, with Bertie, the use of first names—unprecedented effrontery in a tradition where even his own offspring must genuflect to the king.

While Firth seems to capture well the diffidence and sense of duty the reluctant monarch embodied, Bonham-Carter may be rather a dark choice to play his warm and smiley but intellectually lightweight queen. The real Queen Consort and her cheery mien unequivocally charmed the crowds throughout Australasia and later won the loyalty of Her people at home during the war.

One can’t help comparing the couple to the Waleses of our own time. On more recent royal tours, Charles, Prince of Wales—no stammerer, but still awkward as a glad-hander—sulked in the shadow of his young wife, Diana, as she wowed crowds around the world. Bertie, by contrast, took comfort in having a popular and confident wife at his side: “I could never have done the tour without her help,” he wrote his father from the royal yacht heading home from the South Pacific, “that I know, & I am so thankful she came too.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2010 7:21 pm

    Looks like a winner with superb acting, gorgeous cinematography, great interior design and a history lesson as well!

    • November 4, 2010 9:10 pm

      Once it premiers, you’ll have to provide us AngloFiles with a home-decor review, Karen!

  2. Julia Schonfeld permalink
    November 4, 2010 9:54 pm

    Oooohh – I can’t wait to see it! Looks worthy of risking bed bugs! Thanks for the really interesting background and intriguing photos – great post!

  3. November 11, 2010 11:04 am

    BEDBUGS?!? Holy AngloFiles, not in movie theaters, too. I’ve been actively shunning advice about hotels ever since I realized I can’t follow it. (YOU try keeping four suitcases and their laundry off all floors and beds and away from walls in a two-bed double for two days.) But not movie theaters, too, now. Sigh.

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