My partner loves any drama that the British produce for film. On rainy, dreary days, there’s nothing that cheers her up quite like the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice.” I watch “Pride and Prejudice” and “Love, Actually,” and “Bleak House,” because my partner wants me to watch them with her. She finds it healing to know someone loves her enough to share her films. I find it healing to know that someone loves me enough that she wants to share beloved films with me. For her, the soulful, long looks of Rene Zellweger and Colin Firth can only be matched by a stammering Hugh Grant. So of course we had to see “The King’s Speech.”
For those of you who have lived in a hut for the last year, or who merely aren’t blessed enough to have an Anglophile as a partner, “The King’s Speech” is Colin Firth’s latest vehicle in his drive toward an Oscar. Last year, we had “A Solitary Man,” which made good use of Firth’s deep brown eyes and dark good looks. Firth didn’t win, but his portrayal of a bereaved gay man trying to cope with the death of his partner felt so real that I got out the google button to prove that he was gay. There’s nothing quite like lesbian gaydar gone awry. Colin is not only dreamy, but he’s also apparently straight. That means that in some alternate universe in which I am straight, 10 years younger, 30 pounds lighter, and immeasurably more beautiful, Colin Firth could be my boyfriend.
“The King’s Speech” is another British slow-to-move-but-worth-it dramas. It’s a lot like “The Queen”: one can feel the leisurely pace of the leisure class. The film swims in deep wood, gilding, fine china and aristocracy. Co-starring with Firth, Geoffrey Rush plays a commoner—his wallpaper is peeling, his couch is worn past threadbare—who, without formal training, is able to help the future king overcome a stammer. Perhaps Hugh Grant should pay him a visit.
But the film is about far more than speech therapy. At its core, it is about our lives’ malleability. Not only does the Colin Firth unexpectedly become King when his brother, played by Guy Pearce , abdicates the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, but his wife, played by Helena Bonham Carter, must also learn to play the role of Queen. Rush, playing a man who wanted to be an actor, describes the Shakespeare character of Richard III as a “deformed creature yearning to be King.” As Firth stumbles and stutters his way through the film his “deformity” overshadows any King-yearning he might harbor. Radio and film were transforming a world that would soon reel from Hitler’s duplicity and aggression; the role of the monarchy could no longer hide a stutterer.
Bonham-Carter plays Queen Elizabeth, and she manages to look more normal in a period costume than she normally looks in candid photos. I’m so used to seeing her wear “outfits” that her movie outfits look natural on her. She does a great job in the film of showing a loving wife caught in a maelstrom; she loves her husband more than she loves the position in which his circumstances have thrust them.
“The King’s Speech” has a few sly asides. The minister from “Pride and Prejudice” (the ten million part BBC version to which I’m often subjected), David Bamber, shows up as an unnecessarily cruel theater director who rejects Rush’s audition; Crispin Bonham-Carter, who played Mr. Bingley in “Pride and Prejudice” (Marathon BBC Version) is a distant cousin of Helena Bonham-Carter. Jennifer Ehle starred as Elizabeth Bennett in that same series; she plays Geoffrey Rush’s wife in “The King’s Speech.” Interestingly, she also used to date Firth, and their relationship ended about the time he began to date his now-wife.
Firth spends the film portraying a man battered by circumstance, by duty and by his family of origin. Sometimes he looks like a troubled Robin Williams, his good looks washed away by a clenched jaw and an unhappy childhood; other times, his eyes become headlights of rage. Rush is more of a therapist to him than a speech coach, teaching him how to speak by allowing that his voice has worth, advising him that he doesn’t “have to be afraid of the things that you were afraid of when you were 5.” It is one thing to say that to a friend; it is another to say that to a king.
But more than anything else, more than reminding us that we are haunted no matter what station in life we occupy, more than reminding us that we all need friends, more than reminding us that our voice is only as loud as we allow it to be—and this film reminds us of all of that---more so, this film shows us that our place in life is malleable, and is only a construct of our own beliefs about who we are. It’s a story of transformation, and transcendence. It reminds us to have faith in our own voice, and to trust that others are listening not just with their ears, but with their hearts. It reminds us that each of us has the power to overcome whatever wounds we’ve suffered, but only by allowing other people close enough to love and heal us.