Before Video Killed the Radio Star

King George VI giving 'the King's Speech" on Sep 3, 1939.

King George VI giving "the King's Speech" to his country on the eve of World War II.

[a spoiler-free review of THE KING’S SPEECH starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush]
The King's SpeechIn 2006, THE QUEEN appeared in movie theaters, telling the story of the Royal Family’s reaction to Princess Diana’s death.  Nominated for six Oscars, it won one:  Helen Mirren’s extraordinary performance as Queen Elizabeth II.  Ultimately, the movie comments on how personal family matters intersect with the duties of government in the age of modern communications.

This year sees another film, THE KING’S SPEECH, which is equally extraordinary and deals with similar themes.  The King in the title refers to Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, played to perfection by Colin Firth (who may just garner an Oscar himself for this performance).  And just as THE QUEEN deals with the new rules of society writ by modern technology (the rise of the modern 24 hour news cycle), THE KING’S SPEECH shows the enormous impact on society by one of the earliest modern forms of communication:  radio.  Or, as it was known in those days, “wireless”.

Over the past 200 years, technological change brought by the industrial revolution has strained societal rules in ways that would vex earlier generations.  Customs and expected norms could be instantly upended.  Introducing sound into film is just one such example:  many popular actors of the silent film era could not make the jump to sound simply because they had no convincing voice.  (SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN dramatizes this phenomenon effectively.)

So, too, radio’s invention and the resulting instantaneous mass broadcast of the mid 1920s caused a dramatic shift:  it was no longer good enough to look regal in photographs; one must sound regal as well.  George’s father, King George V, tells his son that the new wireless technology has made actors of them all.  The difference is that, unlike the movie industry, it isn’t possible to find royalty with “better” voices.  You have to go with what you had.

For George, this was particularly troublesome as he had a stutter since the age of 4.  How can one appear as a king without sounding like a king, especially in times of war?

BBC radio control room - 1932

High-tech, 1932 style: the BBC Broadcasting House control room, where the empire made its King's voice heard over the wireless.

In an age where we see one technology replacing another as commonplace, it’s hard to imagine just how special radio was.  Radio was the very first instantaneous communication medium ever and so it did the most to rewrite the rulebook on communications.  The film clearly and deftly makes the point about how extraordinary this new technology was in the early 20th century.  In the first few minutes of the film you see a room that resembles NASA’s Mission Control where the BBC sent out radio feeds to the entire globe (their empire).  The similarity to NASA struck me:  today our feeds go everywhere because of satellites, but those didn’t even exist at the dawn of radio – and yet you could hear an event in real-time that was occurring halfway around the world.  It made me appreciate how strange this technology was for both the public and politicians of the day.

Enter George and his stutter.

George’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), pushes for George to deal with the stutter because of the anguish she sees it cause him in his modest duties as a prince.  This Elizabeth is not the matronly, but popular, “Queen Mum” familiar to us from our own time (and portrayed in THE QUEEN), but a much younger, attractive, vibrant, loving spouse who is rather persistent about helping her husband.  After all the usual (and regally-approved) speech therapists, she finally finds Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a man (Australian no less!) with radical methods (using a phonograph to record results!) – but proven results nonetheless.

And this is where our story really begins.  For Lionel is much more than a speech therapist.  To be effective at curing the stutter, he needs be part psychologist as well.  And royalty don’t just open up to talk with the common folk.

They don’t even open up among themselves.

George VI becomes King in the modern broadcast age.

The Prince with the stutter becomes King at the dawn of the modern broadcasting age.

But it turns out that history conspires against George and forces him to deal with his issues and not run from them.  Had the events of the day not been so large (there is constant talk about “Herr Hitler” and speculation about what he really wants in Europe), it’s conceivable George would never have fully dealt with his stutter.  I won’t spoil the plot for those unfamiliar with British history but suffice it to say that eventually George does find himself, improbably, being crowned King and, with the approach of World War II, the stakes related to his impairment rise dramatically.

The interactions between Firth and Rush are at the film’s center and will make you laugh with their honesty and weep with their poignancy.  This is not a “buddy picture” – there is simply too much society separating the two men – but it’s extraordinary to watch them work for the common goal of conquering the King’s stutter, literally for the good of the country.  At its core, this is a very human story with a very real awareness of how human foibles in leaders can wreck – or save – entire societies.  That the film is historically accurate only makes it more fascinating and is a reminder how delicate history really is; fact is truly stranger than fiction.

The MPAA gave THE KING’S SPEECH an R-rating  as a result of liberal use of the f-word.  This word, and its repetition,  is absolutely essential to the artistic content of the film and reveals just how poor a ratings system the MPAA runs.  I can imagine teenagers empathizing with a King frustrated by his awkward stutter — isn’t being a teenager the quintessential awkward experience?  It’s ludicrous that the MPAA felt a need to protect high school students from experiencing this film over a word they all already know.

THE KING’S SPEECH is highly recommended on many levels.  Its themes of new technology and its sociological impacts will feel quite modern as we watch the Internet replace television in our own times.  As a story, the film succeeds in exquisitely dramatizing events leading up to the ones more familiar from history books.  (The King’s family famously stayed in London despite the Nazi bombings of that city and rallied the country as a result.  It’s not hard to understand where Queen Elizabeth II gets her style and stamina after watching her father’s sense of duty to country.)  And finally, as a work of art, THE KING’S SPEECH brings together an extraordinary set of actors, all in peak form, to a very tightly written, intelligent script.

Prepare to be entertained and enriched all the way around.

UPDATE (Jan 16, 2011 9:50 pm):  Colin Firth wins Golden Globe best lead actor for dramatic film.  If you watch THE KING’S SPEECH you’ll know why.

UPDATE (Jan 30, 2011 7:00 pm):  Colin Firth wins SAG Award for best lead actor and THE KING’S SPEECH wins best acting ensemble award.  Looks like my prediction of Firth garnering an Oscar may bear out.

UPDATE (Feb 27, 2011 8:30 pm): Colin Firth wins Oscar. No surprise in retrospect, particularly when you listened to his narrative under the clips of the other 9 nominated films during the Oscar broadcast. Tom Hooper wins for Best Director and THE KING’S SPEECH gets Best Picture. If you haven’t seen this picture yet: WHY NOT?

HISTORICAL SPOILERS:  You can listen to George giving the actual “King’s speech” here which I found powerful and moving after having seen the film.  In addition, you can hear George’s older brother, Edward, give a radio address here.  This speech is also part of the film’s narrative.

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2 thoughts on “Before Video Killed the Radio Star

  1. excellent review

  2. […] Firth (THE KING’S SPEECH).  This is also a lock and my 3 faithful readers will remember when I predicted it way back before the 2011 awards season even started. (Yes, I used the words “I predicted it,” the same phrase I lampooned in a blog about […]

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