'The King's Speech': Brilliant filmmaking, less-than-brilliant history

A look at the Oscar nominees for 2011.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 10:03 AM

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 King George VI and his debilitating stammer (as the Brits call it), Firth's performance was so impressive that it left me with a stutter of my own.

The Golden Globes agreed, giving Firth a best-acting nod. Can Oscar be far behind? Jolly well ought to, I thought as I exited the theater.

Then I ruined it. I mentioned to my wife that I might check some facts. "Don't spoil it," she groaned. (Speaking of spoilers, a warning 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. 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 his psyche, you want to stand and cheer.

Brilliant filmmaking. 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," according to Roberts.

Listen to a recording of King George VI's 1939 address.

Peter Conradi, a Times of London journalist 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."

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