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