"Bertie, I'm not a geisha girl."
We are shown the Duke of York's problem from the get-go. His royal address for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1925 is as awkward to witness as it is painful for the future Monarch to exercise. Meetings with speech specialists provide erroneous answers such as smoking and speaking with marbles in the mouth. They all go for naught. A final straw is provided by Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian who found a home in the United Kingdom. Mixed into this deeply inward story is the onset of World War II. With the rise of Hitler, the Western world is in dire need of a rallying cry. Unfortunately, the man who could provide this shout, can barely muster an audible whisper.
Colin Firth competently captures the Duke (the soon to be King George VI) at his best and worst. He is a man at the peak of celebrity, yet he struggles with a condition that is so ordinary and common. Strip away the palace and the servants, he is a person like you or I. Firth's presentation is the pinnacle of a career filled with noteworthy performances. And how refreshing it is to watch Helena Bonham Carter when she's not playing a raving lunatic. After being certifiable in the later Harry Potter chapters and pretty much every Tim Burton film, Bonham Carter delivers Queen Elizabeth to us in a dignified manner. Here, we are graciously reminded once more of her merits in the field. The way she reacts to her husbands tribulations and triumphs perfectly mimics the way we feel as well.
Logue's methods are unorthodox to say the least. A comical montage of muscle relaxing, and breathing techniques are utilized to break ground. To release tension a more formal relationship is barred within Logue's walls. He requests to be called Lionel; the Duke--to his early chagrin--is now Bertie, a familial tag. The way Logue is able to refer to the future ruler of the Commonwealth so personally is striking. The British rule was and continues to be one of aristocracy. For a commoner to address royalty as anything but is a shock to the system. The relationship that Firth and Rush embody is the best onscreen duo of the year. It made me smile to think what started as an assignment ended up a lifelong friendship.
Bertie finds a taste of early success when it is learned he is able to form cogent sentences while singing and/or swearing. His complication with his stammer is mental. A compelling moment takes place when Bertie wears headphones and listens to classical music while reciting Shakespeare. Feeling foolish, he throws them down in disgust and storms out. As a consolation, Lionel gives him a recording of the process. At home after much hesitation, his Highness plays it and hears back a voice the great poet intended.
Bertie's father, George V (Michael Gambon) is a respected leader. He is hard on his sons, as I suspect his father was on him. When he succumbs to sepsis in 1936 the crown is rightfully passed down to his eldest son Edward. The two Prince's could not be any different. While Bertie is reserved and a homebody, married with two kids. Edward (Guy Pearce) lives the life of a jet-setter; we are first introduced to him as he lands a plane in a field. He carries on with a twice divorced American woman named Wallis Simpson (a whole other movie onto itself). Shockingly, he abdicates his status to be with his love. All rights are passed to Bertie, and the rest as they say, is history.
To me, the most powerful scene comes early when Bertie tells a bedtime story to his daughters Elizabeth and Margaret. He spins a fairy tale of a Prince who is turned into a penguin; due to his flippers he is unable to embrace his children. This fable becomes an allegory for his very own life. Bertie pauses throughout the fable. Sometimes for emphasis, more often than not for clarity's sake. His hinderance has always kept others at an arms length away. With Lionel's help, he can finally share with the world the voice he's always had.