Good screenwriters make good historians—and here scribe David Seidler works both angles—not only bringing to light a good story but finding the kernel of conflict that makes The King’s Speech a great movie. Taking us through the fantastic tale of King George VI’s speech impediment and how he worked to overcome it, he provides a new spin on a well-trod tale—how the royals held up during wartime. Many reviewers have praised Colin Firth’s marvelous turn as George and Geoffrey Rush’s equally inspired portrayal of speech therapist Lionel Logue, but this is a screenwriting blog, so I will only spend the last paragraph doing that.
Instead, I’ll talk about the script, which deserves equal amounts of praise. For those not in the know, George, the Duke of York, ascends to the throne in 1936 after his brother Edward VIII steps down to elope with an American divorcee. George often has trouble speaking a sentence without a stutter, and in an increasingly public world, finds the prospect of facing the media daunting. In the shadow of continental fascism, George must seek professional help in the form of Logue to overcome his stuttering and rally his people to fight Hitler and stand with Britain.
If this sounds like a lot to accomplish in a two-hour movie, it is. A writer of lesser talent could easily muck it up with subplot after subplot, but here, Seidler uses well-placed speech set-pieces to focus George’s story. When George is first dressed down by his father, George V, who snarls “just get on with it,” he is blanking in front of a microphone about to practice a Christmas address (just wonderfully delivered by dad). Likewise, when George tells Edward to get a grip on his personal affairs during his short-lived reign he finds he has no voice and stammers instead of making a speech. The movie’s climactic scene comes as he must declare war on Nazi Germany after Hitler invades Poland. Throughout, speech, and speaking form a beautiful centerpiece; the final speech’s smooth delivery serves as a sign that the king has changed, that through therapy and practice, all is possible for him, not just the task at hand but also the winning of the war.
It’s a touching movie with a great message. I was moved. But it wouldn’t have been possible without Colin Firth, who wholly commits to the role. He’s quite a shape-shifter, and his performance as George VI moves from vulnerable to unlikable, opaque to transparent, even uninspiring to cathartic. Never before has such a stuffy old king warmed so many cynical moviegoers’ hearts.