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

By Steve Luxenberg
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."

Tinker? Recasting Churchill into the opposite role?

Cinematic storytellers often defend the liberties they take with history by saying they are aiming for "emotional truth," as if the facts won't yield it. If challenged, they often retreat to Conradi's final contention: "This never claimed to be a documentary."

There's no grand deception here. We all know that movies alter timelines and omit facts for efficiency or dramatic effect. But why bother to do a film about historical events if those events merely become props to be reordered in search of a manipulated "truth?" For many, "The King's Speech" will probably be the only version of those events they will ever know. The all-too-real stammer provided more than enough material to do a compelling movie.

I should have learned my lesson 30 years ago, when I saw "Chariots of Fire," the story of two British runners at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

One was Harold Abrahams, a sprinter weighed down by his ethnicity (he was Jewish). Crushed by his decisive loss in the 200 meters, he sets out with an almost blinding determination to redeem himself in the 100 meters. He achieves that goal - for his country, for himself and, the film suggests, for the Jewish people.

Captivated by this unfamilar history, I wanted more. Big mistake.

The film had reversed the order of the two races so Abrahams could lose, then triumph. The "emotional truth" of his determined dash to redemption? A fiction.

Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice . . .

Good luck, Colin. You created a great character. I'm rooting for you.

Steve Luxenberg is an associate editor at The Washington Post.

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