One of the most endlessly popular narratives about British royalty could be called the coming-of-monarch story: the new (or, sometimes, old) monarch must battle some personal problem, whether medical or romantic, in order to embrace their public duties and transform themselves into a national symbol. Often, this painful process requires them to work with a commoner (insufficiently respectful) whose contributions are essential, but who may nevertheless be expelled from the inner circle at the end. In recent years, we've seen variations on this theme in the various films and miniseries about Queen Elizabeth I, along with The Madness of King George, Mrs. Brown, The Queen, and The Young Victoria. The King's Speech, which tracks the personal fallout from George VI's unexpected accession to the throne, offers some new riffs on this storyline.
The title has a double meaning: it refers both to the speech that announces the country's entry into WWII, and to Bertie/George VI's problem--his stutter. Like Mrs. Brown and The Queen, both of which addressed the effects of contemporary mass media on the royal image, The King's Speech focuses on the technological advances that will reshape how the king interacts with his subjects. In this case, it's the wireless, which seems to collapse the physical and metaphorical distance between king and country. No longer will just a few people hear the king speak; now, everyone with access to a radio can do so. Moreover, the act of listening to the king's broadcasts turns out to symbolically unify the nation, as the montage of different audiences (from royalty to factory workers) near the end suggests. For just a moment, class differences apparently evaporate. But for this to happen, as George V tells an unhappy Bertie, the king needs to be able to speak.
Enter one of the film's two resident commoners, Lionel Logue, who lives in a shabby flat and receives patients in a dank, cavernous office in desperate need of a good coat of paint. As we see early on, the Australian Lionel is regarded with some contempt because of his nationality; nor does he necessarily make friends and influence people with his habit of addressing the Duke of York, later king, as "Bertie," along with other liberties. Nevertheless, Lionel's relative want of respect for Bertie/George VI--aside, that is, from the respect due to a friend and equal--turns out to be one of the most significant factors in the king's improvement. Like Dr. Willis in The Madness of King George and John Brown in Mrs. Brown, Lionel "saves" the monarch by, in effect, refusing to treat him as anything other than a troubled human being. To fully perform his function as a symbol, the king must first find someone outside the royal family who will treat him as a man. Unlike those two films, however, this one doesn't require the king to reject Lionel once his "cure" is complete--in fact, it's made clear that the cure will never be complete, and Lionel will always need to be on hand. This king, in other words, can never be complete as a symbol: instead of submerging the private self in the public, George VI learns how to make the two work together through friendship. Moreover, this friendship also miniaturizes the king's new relationship to his public in the age of wireless, in which he appears to "cross the threshhold," as he says, of his subject's homes.
Lionel's opposite number turns out to be Wallis Simpson. Where Lionel works to make the king a "great man," Wallis seeks to empower herself through her connection to Edward VIII. And while everything Lionel does has duty as the ultimate goal, everything Wallis does has pleasure and personal power as its ends. And then there are Wallis' Nazi sympathies. Cherchez la femme, one gathers. Lionel, then, turns out to be a patriot (despite English contempt for his Australian origins), while Wallis simply looks for the main chance. Beyond the historical realities involved, there seems to be some nostalgia for the last days of the British empire here--George VI's reign, after all, saw the empire collapse. (Actual politics are pretty much absent from the film; we have politicians, but no real idea of what they stand for.) In any event, the post-George III model of the eminently "middle-class," domestic king is at work: the rightful heir may have sown his wild oats, but he's a dedicated family man whose (idealized) personal values match those of the commoners he doesn't really know.
In fact, of the films I listed above, The Madness of George III seems to be--loosely--the closest model for this film's plot. (Bertie even compares himself to George III.) Putting to one side the Shakespeare references (featuring Caliban instead of Lear), The King's Speech is, like The Madness of King George, very much about learning how to perform the part of "king." "I have remembered how to seem," George III remarks; Bertie must learn how to "seem" in the first place. Similarly, The King's Speech invokes, then inverts, the conclusion of The Madness of King George by replacing George III's rejection of Dr. Willis at the thanksgiving ceremony with George VI's embrace of Lionel. In a way, George VI displaces the lingering specter of his ancestor.
As with any historical drama, this one plays some games with the facts. The king's other siblings vanish (making hash of George V's final words), and Wikipedia informs me at least one childhood anecdote belonging to Edward VIII has been handed over to George VI. The ironies of Churchill's "too Germanic" comment will probably escape most American viewers. And, for obvious dramatic reasons, the amount of time it took for Lionel to get results has been vastly exaggerated. (Refreshingly, though, the king's success isn't overdone.) I'm sure specialists in this time frame will note other issues. Overall, though, this is a fine example of this particular subgenre of the biopic, and features rightly-lauded performances from Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.