Many of us of a certain age are familiar with the spine of the story. It’s 1936, the Great Depression is grinding away, and war clouds are forming over Europe. Britain’s King George V (Michael Gambon) dies, his vapid son Edward (Guy Pearce) succeeds him as king. Just eleven months later, Edward abdicates so he can run off and marry the American multiple-divorcée, Wallis Simpson. Younger brother Albert Frederick Arthur George, or “Bertie,” (Colin Firth) ascends to the throne as King George VI. As far as European royal families go, so far, so good
But – there’s always a “but” – Bertie has a problem. And it’s a problem that I certainly wasn’t aware of before this movie. Bertie has been a life-long stammerer, and he’s deathly afraid of any form of public speaking. Yet he now has a nation to inspire as its titular leader, and he has to do this during a time of rising international turmoil. This requires ceremonial remarks, radio addresses, public appearances – all anathema to this insecure, embarrassed, stammering king.
So stammering and British history intersect. And this leads to the heart of the movie – the relationship between Bertie and his highly unconventional speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush). Watching this rocky relationship develop, as portrayed by two masters of the acting art, Firth and Rush, is a treat to behold. And the lesser roles aren't too shabby -- Helen Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth, Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The critical reception has been almost unanimously gushing. All 17 top critics as compiled by Rotten Tomatoes gave it the highest accolade -- a ripe tomato rating.
To me, one of the most interesting perspectives on the movie was that written by the drama critic of the Los Angeles Times, Charles McNulty. What makes his review a little more special is that McNulty is himself a stammerer. Some quotes from his piece:
Public speaking consistently ranks as one of life's most stressful events, up there with divorce, bereavement and home foreclosure.
As someone who has stuttered since childhood, I recognize [Bertie’s] symptoms only too well — the blood-drained complexion, the collapsing gait, the passive acceptance of death in the eyes.
Probably the darkest period of my life was around the time I was just finishing graduate school and feeling completely overwhelmed with doubts about how I would make my way in the world. How funny that a future king could share my anxiety.
By the way, I recently read Black Swan Green, a terrific 2006 novel by British writer David Mitchell in which the protagonist is a 13-year-old stammerer. His biggest challenges arise from the cruelty that many children impose upon a peer who has a disability. As McNulty pointed out in his movie essay,
The condition has been coded as a joke in popular culture, one of the few disabilities considered fair game for laughs.