Thursday, October 29, 2020

The King’s Stammer

 

 

By Monte Lazarus

A British film about the unlikely relationship between the future King of England and an Australian speech therapist is the setting for this engrossing story.

Albert Frederick Arthur George, the Duke of York (Colin Firth) emerged from a sickly childhood with a severe stammer, according to the film brought on in part by the harsh treatment he received from his father, King George V, as well as his nanny. The Duke, known as Bertie to his family, had flopped publicly in a short ceremonial statement before a crowd, and the stammer became well known. Those were the days of radio, a particularly poor time for a speech defect.

Enter Mr. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) an unconventional Australian speech therapist who, according to the film, was discovered by the future Queen to cure the Duke’s stammer. What followed was an unlikely friendship stemming from the series of peculiar and difficult voice lessons.

The story begins during the world wide depression of the 1930’s. In January, 1936, with war looming in Europe, George V died, and his son David, Prince of Wales ascended to the British throne as Edward VIII. However, Edward VIII was smitten with Mrs. Wallis Simpson, who was not only American, married at the time, but also a divorcee. This was a no-no according to the Church of England, as well as British attitude toward the rectitude of the crown. After 11 months Edward VIII abdicated and spent the rest of his life in exile as a playboy with the un-charming Wallis who became his wife. Their apparent fondness for the Nazis did not enhance their reputations.

Bertie became George VI and lived long enough to earn a reputation as a courageous and beloved wartime monarch.

In the movie the friendship grows as Bertie (as he is called throughout by Logue) and Lionel take turns verbally dueling with each other as they go through some agonizing lessons, including singing and swearing. The Duke is amazed to realize that when he speaks one-on-one to Lionel it is the first time he has talked to a commoner. Lionel, in turn, is unfazed by working with the future king. The acting by Firth and Rush is extraordinary as they work not only to overcome the stammer, but to understand one another as human beings.

The climactic radio address on the outset of World War II is set against the magnificent Second Movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and is staged brilliantly.

Not only are Firth and Rush superb as principals, but Guy Pearce is excellent as a cruel older brother and a hapless Edward VIII. The rest of the cast does well with Eve Best as a domineering Wallis Simpson (ordering David, now king, to fetch her a drink, Helena Bonham Carter as a doughty Queen Elizabeth Michael Gambon as George V, and others offer excellent support. My one difficulty with the cast was Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill. He seemed to me to make a caricature of the role. Incidentally, in the movie he was portrayed as favoring Edward’s abdication; in historical fact Churchill opposed it.

This is not a movie to be seen for complete historical accuracy. It is thoroughly enjoyable as a well-structured screenplay with some outstanding performances and a number of light, welcome touches.

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