Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The King's Speech

About a third of the way into Tony Hooper's The King's Speech, I had a feeling I'd seen the plot before. Stuffy, hidebound, repressed type meets irreverent, vital colonial and is charmed/seduced despite themselves? Ah yes - Titanic, where it was toffee-nosed Kate Winslet who (despite the lack of a formal introduction) needed to find charming chancer Leonardo di Caprio (and the entire cast of Riverdance, travelling steerage to show her what life could really be - Catholics have natural rhythm, dontcha know) before she could unloosen her stays and do some bouncing over the bounding waves with him. I'm not a cinema buff, but I guess that theme goes back a long way.

This time it's Colin Firth's Duke of York (fated to become George VI after his elder brother's abdication), unable to string a sentence together in less than ten minutes due to his stammer, who needs the help of Geoffrey Rush's speech therapist Lionel Logue ("me Lionel, you Bertie") to unbutton his buttons - after which he can bounce about a room shouting swear-words as well as any Brit monarch in history. Rush plays Logue somewhat in the style of Professor Laurie Taylor - a kind of smug mixture of matiness and superiority, a man with a fiver each way on himself. In fact Logue's grandchildren described him as a 'very Victorian' character, not over-familiar - pretty much the opposite of what Rush gives us. "I don't think he ever swore in front of the king and he certainly never called him Bertie.*"

Writer David Seidler takes the usual pop at Christianity, Rush's Logue (in reality a Christian Scientist) dismissing the religious element of the Coronation Oath as 'this rubbish'**, and he absolutely murders British history. Baldwin didn't resign with the words 'Churchill was right' - far from it, he laid down his office confident that Churchill was well and truly sidelined and out of the way. Nor was the Duke of York a strong anti-Nazi - nor a Churchill fan, any more than Churchill, who supported Edward VIII during the abdication crisis, was a fan of his (although he later became one). And if the King couldn't speak by the outbreak of war in 1939 he really did have problems - Logue had been helping him for thirteen years by then.

That said, the direction is excellent, as are the performances. Two hours fly by, and you find, as war breaks out and the BBC mike lights come on, that you really want the big speech to go well. It's not an easy job to make gripping drama out of a man reading three typed pages - but it works. The camerawork is fantastic - London has never looked more gloomily beautiful, a fog-bound sepia fantasy - although again you have to wonder if Logue, whose practice was in Harley Street, really lived in a neighbourhood straight out of Oliver Twist. The cinema audience applauded at the end.

But I fear that a generation*** will grow up knowing that the King was helped by an ur-hippie teaching him to loosen up by jumping about while shouting obscenities. The dramatic core of the film is also its biggest lie.

* as a naval officer who served at Jutland, the Duke almost certainly had been exposed to an extensive armoury of swear-words, but off his ship would not have used them, nor tolerated others using them in his presence.

** oh, and Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang wasn't the idiot presented here, either.

*** unless the sell-out audience where I saw it is typical. They were MUCH older than a typical cinema audience.