Queen Elizabeth II got the royal screen treatment in “The Queen” four years ago and now it’s her father’s turn in “The King’s Secret,” another entirely engaging inside look at little-known goings-on among the Windsors. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush lead a splendid cast in this curious and ultimately quite moving story of an Australian speech therapist who endeavors to rid the future king of his stammer and enable him to speak in public as World War II looms. As audience-friendly as it could be, the film will provide a crucial test of the Weinstein Company’s ability to maximize a title’s potential, as this is the sort of Anglophilic crowd pleaser that routinely made fistfuls for the old Miramax.
In most ways, Albert Frederick Arthur George, who assumed the throne in 1936, was an undistinguished, unexciting man one would not expect to be one of the first monarchs to come to the mind of a dramatist in search of compelling material. Nor did the third of George V’s sons himself have great expectations of ever becoming king himself.
But nature plays its tricks, not the least of which was afflicting the handsome fellow with a speech impediment that effectively paralyzed him when he was forced to make a public address, as mortifyingly witnessed in the opening scene of the Prince of York (Firth) failing to get his words out at a BBC broadcast speech at Wembly Stadium.
Secretly, his wife Elizabeth (Helen Bonham Carter) calls on Lionel Logue (Rush), a rather lowercase Henry Higgins who once performed Richard III on the Aussie boards (overplaying him, no doubt) and whose ego significantly dwarfs any academic or scientific credentials. Reluctantly making his way to the therapist’s grandly shabby digs, the prince has evidently never before met a commoner with such effrontery; he is aghast at Logue’s adamantly egalitarian ways–the Australian insists upon calling him by his nickname “Bertie” and is taken aback by his no smoking policy–and much of the easy pleasure of the opening reels grows from the way Logue blithely treats his royal patient as he would a taxi driver from Stepney. “My castle, my rules,” he airily informs the future king.
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Given that Bertie makes only fitful progress–listening to music while he speaks seems to help, and yelling out profanities loosens him up–it’s a good thing there are other things for screenwriter David Seidler (whose script for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tucker: A Man and His Dream” sticks out from among loads of TV credits) to turn to for a little dramatic meat. And indeed there are, little matters such as the future of the empire, royal succession and World War II. George V (Michael Gambon), a strict fellow who terrified all his children, fears the “proletarian abyss” represented by developments in both Germany and the Soviet Union,” and outwardly frets that the British Empire will crumble within a year of his death under the reign of his feckless party-boy eldest son Edward (Guy Pearce), who may also be soft on the Nazis.
When the old man dies, in 1936, Edward confesses, “Now I’m trapped,” as all he wants is to marry American two-time divorcee Wallis Simpson, out of the question for an English monarch. Within a year, Edward abdicates (over the radio with impeccable diction of which his brother is entirely incapable), leaving the throne to Bertie, who can’t handle the pressures of a Christmas address to the nation. Desperately calling upon Logue’s services in preparation for his coronation speech, King George VI shortly faces his most significant, and unavoidable, challenge of all–rousing and uniting the nation over the airwaves when Britain is forced into war with Germany in September, 1939. The way Logue guides him through it, quite like an orchestra conductor, and the manner in which the ill-cast monarch rises to the occasion almost in spite of himself, is powerfully dramatized with the help of a montage of concerned subjects listening all around the empire; perhaps the use of Beethoven to back it up is a bit much, but the effect is quite affecting all the same.
Required to enact the role of an awkward bumbler of little distinction through most of the story, Firth magnificently demonstrates the virtue of his habitual understatement in this climactic scene; what has been bottled up for the better part of two hours is finally released, resulting in deep emotion and relief for the viewer. It’s not easy to give a magnetic, involving performance when your character is a maladroit man who describes himself as “the solemnest king who ever lived,” but Firth manages it in an excellent follow-up to his career breakthrough turn last year in “A Single Man.” Rush has the showier role and provides the brash energy needed to offset the dourness of most of the royals. Bonham Carter provides the future Queen Mother with the right touch of shrewdness and Pearce leaves little question that Edward regarded public duty as an irritating distraction to private satisfaction. Joining them in lending solid support are Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury, supremely annoyed at Logue’s presence on any occasion; Anthony Andrews as the stylishly misguided Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and Timothy Spall as the ascendent Winston Churchill, who had battled a stammer of his own.
Director Tom Hooper, who made Revolutionary War-era America come so vividly alive in the “John Adams” miniseries, once again animates historical material with sharply drawn characters and lifelike behavior, although he does continue to over-rely on distorting wide-angle shots. One inspired touch has the verbally thwarted king unable to suppress his envy and admiration while watching newsreel footage of Adolf Hitler demonstrating his oratorical brilliance.