Tom Hooper’s enjoyable and handsomely produced movie about George VI’s struggle to cure his stammer is a massively confident crowd-pleaser. What looks at first like a conventional Brit period drama about royals is actually a witty and elegant new perspective on the abdication crisis and on the dysfunctional quiver at the heart of the Windsors and of pre-war Britain.
Colin Firth gives a warm and sympathetic performance as Bertie, the Duke of York, an introverted and uncomfortable stammerer, bullied by his father George V, played by Michael Gambon, and overshadowed by his playboy older brother, David, a role dispatched with some style by Guy Pearce. Helena Bonham Carter is Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, his supportive wife who, with her intuitive sense of when and how to dispense with her own reverence for protocol, engages a new Australian speech therapist to help her despairing husband. This is the eccentric and undeferential Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush, who must cure his own demons and who is patronised as a colonial.
The movie is a clever anti-Pygmalion. Where Henry Higgins had to get Eliza Doolittle to smarten up and talk proper, Logue finds his pupil has gone too far in the other direction: Bertie is too constrained, too clenched, too formal and too miserable. To untie his tongue he has to relax, but also to talk about what makes him unhappy. David, effortlessly debonair and stubbornly set on a marriage to Mrs Simpson, is going to thrust upon Bertie’s shoulders the awful burden of kingship, which, in the new era of radio, depends on public speaking as never before.
When Logue’s methods get results, Bertie is delighted, and Logue becomes a sensational new royal favourite whose intimacy with the duke astonishes and infuriates the palace establishment, particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury, played by Derek Jacobi. Hooper’s film subtly suggests that Bertie has defiantly learned one thing from his ne’er-do-well brother: Logue is to be his very own Mrs Simpson, a commoner who has to be tolerated by the royals. Of course, Logue gets it wrong. He presumes too much.
There are many incidental pleasures in David Seidler’s screenplay. On being thanked for some small service, Logue asks: “What are friends for?” “I wouldn’t know,” snaps the duke. There is strong support from Anthony Andrews as Baldwin and a jowl-wobbling portrayal of Churchill from Timothy Spall. Fans of TV’s Outnumbered will be pleased to see nine-year-old Ramona Marquez cast as Princess Margaret, although I wonder if she shouldn’t really have been Elizabeth.