I’m a fan of both Helena Bonham-Carter and Geoffrey Rush, so as you can imagine, I just about wet my pants to learn they were doing a movie together, The King’s Speech. (Colin Firth? Who’s he?) It’s a good thing I didn’t know what an amazing performance Bonham-Carter gives as Queen Consort Elizabeth (mother to the current Queen Regnant Elizabeth II) or I may just have self-imploded.
The King’s Speech follows the story of Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George, more commonly known at King George VI (Firth). He suffered from a stutter from childhood, which made him a poor public speaker; this condition was exacerbated by living in the shadow of his older brother Edward. Every remedy had been attempted, to no avail. When their father dies and Edward becomes king, his love for twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson brings out Edward’s abdication, making George King. With film and radio making their inroads in society, something needs to be done about George’s speech impediment.
His wife, Elizabeth (Bonham-Carter) seeks out the expertise of one Lionel Logue (Rush). His methods seem to mostly consist of counseling and a fitness regime. But it’s Bonham-Carter who really shines as Elizabeth. She plays ‘The Wife’, but oh, what a wife. Her role, especially as the wife of a high-ranking royal, is one of supportive and deferential behaviour, which she does, but with subtle manipulations when it comes to what she believes is the right thing. She believes Logue could be the key to her husband’s speech problems, and seeks out a solution where more learned men have failed. When George V dies and then Edward abdicates, she is the voice of love and encouragement that helps to keep George from imploding from self-doubts. When her husband faces criticism from his ministers and resentment over his relationship with Lionel, Elizabeth supports him and her convictions with intelligence and dignity.
Elizabeth could quite easily have been reduced to ‘The Wife’ character, submissive, supportive and rather dull, and I believe Bonham-Carter can largely be credited for this not happening. Even when being demure, you get the impression that this was quite a strong-willed woman who knew how to get what she wanted while staying within the boundaries of what was expected of a woman of her position and period. In one scene, when Lionel’s wife realises the Queen is sipping tea in her living room, she is reduced to a stuttering mess and Elizabeth puts her at ease with a few well-chosen phrases. I totally bought Elizabeth as a woman who had ways and means of getting what she believed was the right thing as well as a common touch with people.
We also discover that Elizabeth never wanted to marry the man she called ‘Bertie'; she had no inclination towards royal life and would rather have been left to her own devices. But she married him, partly because she never expected him to become King and largely because she loved him. That he became King and she rose to the occasion as Queen marvelously speaks volumes as to her character.
Something I had issue with, though, was the fact that in her brief appearance, Wallis Simpson comes across as a vulgar American. Given that her character was key to George becoming King – and hence the whole of this movie’s storyline – it would have been nice to catch a glimpse of what was so fascinating about this woman that Edward gave up the throne for her. For sure, Ms. Simpson is never portrayed as a sympathetic woman – at least not as far as my attempts to learn about her went – but she must have been more than a ‘vulgar American’. She must have been intelligent, witty, passionate woman for a man to give up his throne for her. I would have liked to see more from this woman.
For sure, Elizabeth is a supportive character in this movie, tertiary to George and Lionel. But what a supportive character. Elizabeth was a woman that I grew up thinking of as ‘the Queen Mum’, a woman largely on the periphery of things. Bonham-Carter’s Elizabeth is a nuanced woman, simultaneously strong-willed and demure, steadfast in her loyalty to her husband with a strong courage of convictions. In some ways, she is ‘The Wife’ trope, a woman who exists to support Her Man, and yet the fleshed-out way she is portrayed delivers us a rich, detailed character.