The King’s Speech

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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.

Comments

  1. Hailey says

    From what I’ve gathered, a large part of the general dislike of Edward and Simpson had to do with suspicions that they supported Hitler and the Nazi party, which the movie seemed to try and avoid going into. So maybe substituting general “unpleasant, vulgar American” to gain the audience’s dislike was the best substitute they could come up with? Not that that’s a good excuse for her lack of depth, but it could be an excuse…

    • Charles RB says

      The whole “divorced foreigner” thing did play a large part but you’re right, there were concerns that Wallis (and Edward via her) were too close in their sympathies to Nazi Germany.

    • Scarlett says

      True. I did a bit of research into her and ‘Nazi sippoter’ came up QUITE A BIT. I just think it’s a bit of ‘excuse’ thing; I don’t like her, here’s my excuse for not looking further. I suspect it’s a generation thing; my nanna canb remember her, so maybe it’s a case of people remembering first-hand ‘that American bitch who made him give up the crown’. Hopefully in fifty years or eo, we’ll start to see some good WS biographies, If hustory can rehabilitate Anne Boleyn in time, surely it can do the sake for Wallis Simpson.

  2. mew says

    This is a wonderful write-up. Thank you. I really liked this movie a lot, and thought the cast all around was excellent. Of course Colin Firth is getting all the attention – and not that he doesn’t deserve it, he’s terrific in the movie, but it saddens me that Helena Bonham-Carter (and Geoffrey Rush too) have gotten lost in the shuffle a little. Your analysis of how much depth she gave to this character is spot on. It shows just what a superb actress she is – she’s one of my favorites.

    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.

    This so much. Sometimes I think film-makers don’t trust that their audiences will be able to get the nuances of certain characters and therefore feel they have to present them to us as all horrible or all wonderful. It’s too bad.

    • Spooky says

      I agree that right now Colin Firth is getting too much attention – not just because it is eclipsing the work of the other actors in this film, but also because it is causing journos to start harassing his first wife and adult son, who would much prefer to be left alone. Will Firth’s university is now considering extra security or some kind of measures to keep the press away from the end of term performances, which is an expense a UK University can’t really afford right now, or his dad may not be able to come see him.

      Hollywood really needs to get away from this star culture – films are about the collective work of a large group of actors, creatives and techs, not showcases for one person.

  3. Red says

    I’m glad to see this write-up on ‘The King’s Speech’. I saw it Christmas Day with my mom and sister and i was glad to see it. The theater was PACKED. Everyone laughed at the appropriate moments and applauded at the end.

    Both my sister and myself have done research on Queen Elizabeth and found that she was, as Bonham-Carter portrayed her; a strong, courageous woman, who’s love and support inspired her husband and who’s courage and will inspired a nation. Here’s some basic info here. LOTS of very cool bits. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Bowes-Lyon

    Pay attention, Hollywood; if you MUST cast male leads, HERE is a shining example of a GREAT female role and she was based on a REAL person!

    Seriously, I hope we get to see more roles like Bonham-Carter’s on the big screen.

    I would have liked to see more of Wallis Simpson, too. Gotten into her character a little more. But honestly, I find it hard to sympathize with her while both she and Edward lived lavishly and well while Britain was bombed and everyone, including the royal family, rationed everything. Still, it would have interesting to see her character probed further. Would have also liked to have seen a little more abotu Queen Mary, who was shown in only a few scenes.

    Great film, great story… and a great actress portraying a great woman!

    All Hail the Queen!

    • says

      It’s based on a true story. Here’s another perspective on the movie from a stutterer:

      http://www.stutteringiscool.com/links/king-george-vi-footage-that-made-colin-cry/

      The attitudes of the real people upon whom the movie is based most likely were quite ablist, just as you describe. Whether the movie is ablist in its presentation is another question, and without having seen it, I honestly don’t know (which is why I offered the above link).

      I will toss out my own perspective, speaking as someone who suffered depression from childhood on. I loved the unique perspective life had given me, and my experiences with depression were part of that. I had no desire to become normal, and I haven’t, and I won’t. But you betcha I wanted rid of that overwhelming negative mood that was my constant companion, because it made it impossible for me to express my delicious ABnormality to the extent I wanted. :) (This website, for example, would not have existed if I hadn’t overcome my depression to the degree I have.)

      In that sense, I can relate to George’s efforts – assuming HE wanted rid of the stutter. That would be my first question in trying to assess whether the movie was ablist. Because “becoming normal” is not the only possible goal of someone wanting to overcome a disability. But if he was just being pressured by everyone about it and the movie doesn’t acknowledge how ugly that is, then yeah, that would suck.

      • Mezzanine says

        The movie depicts his family pressuring him *enormously* to stop stammering – and teasing him about it – and yes, it definitely acknowledges how ugly that is. George wants to get rid of his stammer too, but mainly because his life as a prince requires him to be good at speaking. As he says (paraphrased from memory), “If I was a butcher, no-one would give a bloody damn.”

        • Scarlett says

          Yeah I think Edward was quite cruel to him at times. From what I remember, his brother and dad – particularly his dad – saw it as an embarrasment so they were quite ableist like that.
          I got the impression that he he only wanted to be ‘cured’ because his job required him to be a good public speaker. I think if you took away the expectation that a prince should be a good public speaker, he probably wouldn’t have cared one way or the other. (At least, not as much as she does in the situation.)

    • Mezzanine says

      No, it’s a movie about how someone with a disability that affects his speech manages to put in a great deal of effort and end up with a job that involves lots of public speaking *even though* he still has that disability.

  4. says

    Thanks for mentioning my podcast! The stuttering community has been so happy about this film. If you want to read more about stutterers’ perspectives, well, there are too many blog posts to list! :) Some good places to start: http://stutter.ca, http://www.stammering.ie, http://stammering.org/kingsspeech.html, http://bit.ly/eW4Mcf and http://stutterrockstar.wordpress.com/?s=king's+speech

    I enjoyed your review about Helena’s portrayal of the Queen Mother. Not a trace of Bellatrix after having seen Harry Potter. Each time I saw the movie, I was excited about how well she portrayed this strong woman who was an equally strong influence in Bertie’s life.

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