‘The King’s Speech’: Bril­liant film, less-bril­liant his­tory

The Washington Post Sunday - - MOVIES - by Steve Lux­en­berg Steve Lux­en­berg is an as­so­ci­ate edi­tor at The Washington Post. lux­en­bergs@wash­post.com

Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, and I must have just watched an­other Bri­tish movie based on his­tor­i­cal events. I emerged from the theater en­thralled with “ The King’s Speech,” nom­i­nated for 12 Os­cars. Al­though I was un­cer­tain about the ac­cu­racy of Colin Firth’s portrayal of KingGe­orge VI and his de­bil­i­tat­ing stam­mer (as the Brits call it), Firth’s im­pres­sive per­for­mance left me with a stut­ter ofmy own.

TheGolden Globes agreed, giv­ing Firth a best-act­ing nod. Could Os­car be next? Jolly well ought to be, I thought.

Then I ru­ined it. I men­tioned tomy wife that I might check some facts. “Don’t spoil it,” she groaned. (Speak­ing of spoil­ers, an alert to read­ers who haven’t seen the film: Con­tinue at your own risk.)

Let’s start with the stam­mer, which sur­faced when “Ber­tie” (a fam­ily nick­name) was a child. It’s the most pow­er­ful char­ac­ter in the movie. It lurks, be­dev­ils, per­se­cutes. Some films have sex­ual ten­sion. “ The King’s Speech” has stam­mer ten­sion.

Long be­fore Ber­tie took the throne upon his brother’s ab­di­ca­tion in 1936, he dreaded pub­lic speak­ing. As Duke of York, he could not avoid it. Into Ber­tie’s ter­ror comes speech ther­a­pist Lionel Logue. As they work to con­quer the stam­mer that threat­ens the king’s reign and psy­che, you want to stand and cheer.

Bril­liant film mak­ing. Less-than-bril­liant his­tory.

Record­ings sur­vive of Ber­tie’s speeches from his ear­lier years as Duke of York. As Bri­tish his­to­rian An­drews Roberts wrote in the Daily Beast, “ They make clear that his prob­lem was noth­ing so acute as this film makes out.” The ten­sion builds on the back of an al­tered time­line that turns the stam­mer into some­thing “so chronic that Colin Firth can hardly say a sen­tence with­out pro­longed stut­ter­ing.”

Peter Con­radi of the Times of London, who wrote a com­pan­ion book to the movie with Logue’s grand­son, had ac­cess to letters and di­aries Logue kept. Con­radi’s re­ply to Roberts is telling: “ The King’s Speech may get some his­tor­i­cal de­tails wrong, but it’s spot on when it comes to its cen­tral point: the close­ness of the friend­ship be­tween King Ge­orge VI and his un­con­ven­tional Aus­tralian speech ther­a­pist.”

Con­radi gen­er­ously of­fers an ex­am­ple of in­ac­cu­racy. “Roberts is right to point out that Tom Hooper, the di­rec­tor, has tin­kered with some of the ba­sic facts, such as hav­ing Win­ston Churchill back the ab­di­ca­tion of Ed­ward VIII, which put a re­luc­tant Ber­tie onto the throne in De­cem­ber 1936, whereas Churchill in­stead spoke out in fa­vor of Ed­ward and his ro­mance with Wal­lis Simp­son.” Tinker? Re­cast­ing Churchill into the op­po­site role?

There’s no grand de­cep­tion here. We all know that movies al­ter facts and time­lines for dra­matic ef­fect. But why do a film about his­tor­i­cal events if those events merely be­come props to be re­ordered for an “emo­tional truth?” For many, par­tic­u­larly Amer­i­cans, “ The King’s Speech” will be the only ver­sion of those events they will ever know.

I should have learnedmy les­son 30 years ago, when I saw“Char­i­ots of Fire,” the story of two Bri­tish run­ners at the 1924 Olympics. One wasHarold Abrahams, a sprinter bur­dened by his am­bi­tion. Crushed by his loss in the 200 me­ters, he sets out with a blind­ing de­ter­mi­na­tion to re­deem him­self in the 100. He achieves his goal— for his coun­try and for him­self.

Cap­ti­vated, I headed to the mi­cro­film. Big mis­take. The film had re­versed the or­der of the races so Abrahams could lose, then tri­umph. The “emo­tional truth” of his de­ter­mined dash to re­demp­tion? A fic­tion.

Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice . . .

Good luck, Colin. You cre­ated a great char­ac­ter. I’m root­ing for you.


THE ROY­ALS: Colin Firth andHe­lena Bon­ham Carter as the king and his queen.

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