I wanted to like The King’s Speech. I had heard good things about it, I like period pieces, I love period pieces having to do with England (Atonement, Remains of the Day, Howard’s End, etc). Plus, our youngest daughter is pursuing a degree in speech pathology. Everything seemed like it was lined up.
It just didn’t happen.
It was partly a case of the movie having some good moments, but just not enough of them. To me, it had a little bit of that feel of trying too hard to evoke an emotional response without really having the material to pull it off. There were definitely a few sparks, but it never really caught fire.
The much larger problem was the film’s historical inaccuracies. In fact, there was so much that was inaccurate I’m not sure where to begin.
The movie is about Prince Albert, the Duke of York. It tracks a fourteen year period of his life beginning with a floundering speech he gives at Wembley Stadium in 1925 (his first broadcast speech), to his nation rallying message of 1939 that explains England’s entrance into war with Germany. In the story’s arc, Albert moves from a stammering second son to King George VI, who helps unite England with his words. At the center of all of this, is the relationship he forms with Lionel Logue, an Australian practitioner of an early form of speech therapy who aids Albert in overcoming his speech impediment.
Perhaps the place to begin is with Winston Churchill. Though a minor figure in the film, his depiction is completely bogus. He is portrayed as being in favor of Albert’s brother, King Edward VIII, abdicating the throne after he has taken up with the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. Didn’t happen. In fact, it was quite the opposite—Churchill defended Edward, whom Christopher Hitchens characterizes as a “pro-Nazi playboy,” at great political cost.
Concerning Nazi Germany, the movie would have us believe Albert/George VI was opposed to Hitler from the very beginning. Again, nothing is further from the truth. When Chamberlin comes back from negotiating the Munich Agreement in late September of 1938, he is given a balcony moment with George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace in an unprecedented endorsement of his appeasement policies. This is a little less than a year before England declares war on Germany!
Getting back to Churchill, he is portrayed as being with George VI in the moments before his famous speech, confiding to the king about a speech impediment of his own. Didn’t happen. Moreover, the balcony scene where all of people are gathered at Buckingham Palace is also fictitious. All of this suggests that the makers of the film didn’t think the story alone was enough and thus the embellishing.
The relationship timeline for Albert and Lionel Logue is greatly skewed. Their relationship actually began in 1926—one year after the disastrous Wembley speech. The majority of their work together was in the 20’s rather than the 30’s as the movie suggests. Moreover, they weren’t on a first name basis, Albert did have friends, the cursing he does is almost certainly added (something movie makers just can’t seem to stay away from), and Logue was never accused of misrepresenting himself.
So what difference does all of this make? After all, it’s a movie, not a documentary. Isn’t it true that all historical films tend to play fast and loose with the facts at some point in order to maximize the dramatic affect?
The answer is a qualified yes. Classics like The Miracle Worker or Chariots of Fire take liberties here and there—but never in such a way as to threaten the film’s integrity. To me, The King’s Speech crosses that line. It’s kind of like Jenga blocks—you can extract a few pieces without disturbing the integrity of the story, but take away too many or remove a critical few and the story collapses. That’s the way I feel about The King’s Speech. There’s a good story at the heart of it, but too many pieces were moved in the telling of it.