Monday, January 17, 2011

A Prince of an Actor

As soon as I saw the first preview some months ago I knew I'd love The King's Speech, the picture that is garnering Best Actor awards for its lead, Colin Firth. Who could resist this marvelous man playing George VI of England, struggling with a crippling speech impediment and facing the challenge of taking over the throne of England?

Colin Firth won the hearts of the world when he defined the elusive, enigmatic Fitzwilliam Darcy in the first-rate 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice,
which introduced millions to the works of Jane Austen. To me he will always exemplify Darcy's integrity and subtle sex appeal. He has moved far beyond that role now, and his portrayal of the reluctant king surely fixes him permanently in the firmament of great English actors. I can see a knighthood in his future.

The movie focuses on the causes of stammering, examined by an extraordinary teacher and lay therapist (played by Geoffrey Rush), and worked on with the help of a strong and supportive wife (Helena Bonham Carter). Bonham Carter has never been more dignified, nor has she embodied a known entity more convincingly. We felt the Queen really was like that, and we hoped the family life was as warm and touching as it seemed. I remember the two princesses constantly in newsreels, and the fascination at Elizabeth's wedding, then Margaret's, and the lives they led as young women. This movie reveals a background I did not know, the England of those little girls' parents, their wastrel uncle born to be king but not up to the job. I knew about Wallis Simpson, of course, and knew that elderly couple--the Duke and Duchess of Windsor by then--who globe-hopped and spent a long marriage seeking recognition they little deserved.

In the movie, we are introduced to the vicissitudes of speech therapy. Rush is patient, wise, and sometimes more than a bit cheeky in working with the young royal. It is the only way this teacher knows how to be in order to break down the defenses Bertie has built up in his years of shame over his speech impediment. This element of the film is most touching, this breaking through and reaching the reserved young man on a basic level which he may never have revealed to anybody. The painful work reaches the crux of his speech and communication problem and moves him to greatness he might never have come near otherwise. Looking at it from today's perspective it is hard to believe how cruel some caregivers have been to little children, and hard to believe that with serious work it can in some cases be undone.

Colin Firth is always a pleasure to watch, with his very unassuming intensity. He is one of the best practitioners of the discipline and restraint that is seen in the best of the English theatre. We are lucky that Hollywood has discovered him and that we may see him for years to come. Sir Colin? Not yet. But mark my words.