The King's Speech: True blood or right royal dud?

Does Tom Hooper's Oscar-tipped Brit-flick about George VI's struggles with his stammer talk sense or take liberties?

Director: Tom Hooper
Entertainment grade: A–
History grade: B+

Prince Albert, known as Bertie, was the second son of King George V. He acceded the British throne as King George VI on the abdication of his brother, King Edward VIII, known as David.


Balcony scene ... King George VI with Queen Elizabeth and their daughters, Princesses Elizabeth (left) and Margaret Photograph: Rex Features

Bertie (Colin Firth) was from his childhood affected by a stammer, which made his public life exceptionally difficult. The film is right in suggesting he endured various therapies to address it, though the scene in which he is made to fill his mouth with marbles is straight out of My Fair Lady.

King's Speech
Over-Logue ... Firth's monarch goes to visit his therapist at his home Photograph: PR

Or perhaps the film-makers were thinking of Charles I, another stammering king: he tried to correct his speech by filling his mouth with pebbles and talking to himself. The film has Bertie going to therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) in the late 1930s, a decade after the two really began working together. The importance of their relationship as depicted in the film is something of an overstatement.


King's Speech
Bye George ... the old king experiences a shockingly rapid health deterioration Photograph: PR

David and Bertie's martinet father, George V (Michael Gambon), is shuffling off his mortal coil. Guy Pearce perfectly captures David's self-pitying brattishness and his coldness towards his family: when the real David was informed of his father's imminent death, he refused to return from a safari holiday in Africa and instead spent that evening seducing the wife of the local commissioner. Pearce does not perfectly capture David's accent. Owing to a childhood spent almost entirely with nannies, the Prince of Wales spoke in private with a Cockney inflection – and later, in exile, developed an American twang.


Timothy Spall in The King's Speech
Timothy drawl ... Spall goes overboard on his Winston Churchill impression Photograph: Public Domain

It must be difficult to play Winston Churchill without slipping into caricature. Timothy Spall certainly can't manage it, pouting, scowling and waddling around like the Penguin. Just as bad is the film's implication that Churchill counselled Bertie to take over during the abdication crisis. In fact, Churchill was one of David's fiercest supporters, advising him: "Retire to Windsor Castle! Summon the Beefeaters! Raise the drawbridge! Close the gates! And dare Baldwin to drag you out!" Churchill also rewrote David's abdication speech, splendidly delivered by Pearce in the movie. Before Churchill got his hands on it, David allegedly wanted to open with: "I now wish to tell you how I was jockeyed off the throne." Churchill replaced this with the more dignified: "At long last I am able to say a few words of my own."


King's Speech
Ice queen ... a distant Mary shows her sons almost no affection in the film Photograph: PR

Meanwhile, the film seems intent on imparting dignity to Bertie when David abdicates. Instead of the sombre scene in the movie, with both brothers calmly signing the abdication, Bertie spent an hour sobbing on the shoulder of his mother, Queen Mary. "I feel," he declared, "like the proverbial sheep being led to the slaughter, which is not a comfortable feeling." He never got used to it: "How I hate being a king!" he once said. "Sometimes at ceremonies I want to stand up and scream and scream and scream."


King's Speech
Off the record ... Bertie's fondness for appeasement doesn't get a mention Photograph: PR

The King's Speech has been criticised by several writers for glossing over Bertie's support for Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement towards Adolf Hitler. True, it could have made more of George VI's support for Chamberlain – and, indeed, of his personal preference for Lord Halifax to take over as prime minister rather than Churchill on Chamberlain's resignation. But shoehorning a whole load of heavy stuff about the royal family's many political imperfections into The King's Speech would not have advanced the film's theme of Bertie's private struggle with his public role. Leaving it out, meanwhile, is not the most offensive of cover-ups. The extent of the scandal is that the king supported Chamberlain – a regrettable misjudgment, but a common one at the time. And, anyway, he wasn't the sharpest tool in the box. He came 68th out of 68 in his final examinations at naval college. Portraying Bertie as an appeaser also wouldn't have helped audiences like him – but the truth is sometimes inconvenient like that.


King's Speech
Queen tea ... Helena Bonham Carter is on reliable form as Bertie's wife Photograph: PR

A moving portrayal of George VI's struggle with his stammer: accurate on its characters' personalities, but not on their politics.


Alex von Tunzelmann

The GuardianTramp

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