Mary Burgan is a retired professor of English and association executive. Her column now runs weekly and she will be reviewing current-run shows. You can contact Mary by email.
I am not an Anglophile, and the PBS “Masterpiece Theatre” productions tend to make me yawn, so I went to see The King’s Speech with a load of skepticism. Not another bow to the British grip on American media drama from me. But I admired Colin Firth’s Oscar-nominated acting in last year’s A Single Man, and that memory lifted my expectations, though the sedate audience in the line to buy tickets at the E Street theater did make me anxious. (I am, by the way, a senior citizen myself).
Well, The King’s Speech is a good movie, and I think Colin Firth ought to get an Academy Award for his work in it. Firth is wonderful at rendering the repressed pain of ordinary men, and it’s clear that George VI was an ordinary man pressed into extraordinary service as King of England during the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich.
His agony coping with his speech defect, stammering when he had to make speeches in public, might make for an interesting small drama, but the fact that he needed to express and defend his country’s decision to go to war with the Nazi regime transforms his small battle with himself into epic combat.
It is the imperative that the King of England speak to the nation, and to the world in 1939, that informs the movie. There is the other drama as well — that of a man of great privilege having to accept the help of another man of less privilege but of superior understanding and drive.
This man, the voice coach Lionel Logue, is played splendidly by Geoffrey Rush (who should get nominated for an Oscar), and the growing relationship between the two is the basis for a lot of the appeal of The King’s Speech. They generate genuinely funny moments in the film. But although that domestic fun may be interesting to consumers of gossip about “the Royals,” I don’t think it is the source of the film’s status as an Oscar contender. (Neither is the nominated role of Helena Bonham Carter. I think that’s just a Masterpiece Theater gesture).
It is rather because of the seriousness of the times — and the focus on George VI’s struggles to meet the exigencies of those times — that The King’s Speech seems well worth viewing. It is an authentic portrayal of a figure in a fast-diminishing aristocratic role, who nevertheless rises to the challenge to lead in a time of historic crisis.
And so the film builds to the most important speech of the King’s life, his broadcast on September 3, 1938, announcing to his “peoples” that England was in a state of war with Germany.
It is no Gettysburg Address, but its cadences, painfully enunciated by Colin Firth as coached by Geoffrey Rush, accentuate the tragedy about to overtake all of England, Europe, and the world. W.H. Auden, a Brit living in New York, wrote about his despair two days before the King’s Speech, in “September 1, 1939.” But in evoking a stupid, mindless world plunging towards global war, he seems to find some hope in “Ironic points of light” that “Flash out wherever the Just/ Exchange their messages.”
Although I strongly doubt that Auden would agree, the measure of the seriousness of The King’s Speech, and of Firth’s enactment of it, is the summoning up of just such an exchange of messages. This film is not another remake of Jane Austen or Dickens. So bring on the statue for the terrific English actor, Colin Firth — even though one late-night comic has suggested that every English actor is actually named “Colin Firth.”