While it’s natural for almost anyone to get a bit nervous when speaking in public, stumbling over a few words while giving a keynote address or losing your train of thought during a toast wouldn’t signify the end of the world. If you were the King of England in 1939, however, disappointing an entire nation at the brink of war was a definite possibility. No pressure, right?
Directed by Tom Hooper (The Damned United) from a script by 73-year-old screenwriter David Seidler (a former stutterer himself), The King’s Speech tells the little-known true story of King George VI (Colin Firth), known as “Bertie” by his family and friends, and his battle with a debilitating speech impediment that causes him to panic and freeze up every time he stands in front of a microphone.
The film opens in 1925 when our tongue-tied protagonist is about to deliver a major speech as the Duke of York during the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. The scene becomes more and more devastating as a terrified Bertie — with speech in hand — opens his mouth and is unable to string two words together without his stammer reverberating through the stadium speakers. Painful as it is to witness, Bertie’s weakness is clearly evident through these awkward moments of silence.
Unable to overcome his stutter despite ongoing vocal treatments (one of his doctors encourages him to smoke because it “calms the nerves and gives you confidence”), Bertie’s supportive wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) sets up a meeting with Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Aussie-born speech therapist and amateur actor whose unorthodox techniques don’t initially impress the duke.
But with Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin looming in the east, the monarchy needs someone confident enough to speak to the masses. Although Bertie is not meant to be the next king, the responsibility is transferred to him when his older brother David (Guy Pearce ), who holds the title of King Edward VIII for less than a year, shocks the House of Windsor when he renounces the throne so he can marry a twice-divorced American socialite.
With all of Britain watching, The King’s Speech builds toward King George VI’s first wartime radio broadcast to the nation. As the ineloquent king, Firth is simply mesmerizing, as is the rest of the talented cast who bring to life this fascinating footnote in British history. Charming, humorous, and engaging throughout, The King’s Speech is easily one of the best films of the year.