Our Rating: 5 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
With recent interest in the early monarchy of the 1900's, I decided to check out this Masterpiece Theatre production about the "stuttering king." It is more a romance than a serious historical piece of work, but in spite of its inaccuracies, it is quite memorable and charming.
The younger son of an aging monarch, Prince Albert (James Wilby), known as "Bertie" to his family and friends, has no expectations of living more than a solitary, quiet life in the country. He is content to be the lesser-acknowledged son, following in his elder brother's footsteps. As a future king, David (Charles Edwards) is a constant source of frustration and embarrassment to the royal family -- his parties are notorious, his womanizing equally so, and of late he has begun to hang out in questionable social circles. Bertie is less popular with the women due to his shyness and a stutter, and no one is more surprised than he is when he meets and falls in love with Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Juliet Aubrey), a commoner. The family is skeptical at first but soon come to appreciate Elizabeth's qualities and welcome her with open arms.
The two are happily married and have two daughters when David is made king, something that brings his mother (Eileen Atkins) a certain amount of distress. Even more horrific is his decision to pursue a serious relationship with an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson (Amber Sealey). The two are a notorious pair and Bertie will soon be thrust into the limelight when his brother chooses abdication rather than responsibility, forcing him to step forward and maintain the morale of his country as the atrocities of Hitler unfurl in Europe. This film starts earlier than The King's Speech and ends much later, but encompasses some of the same material -- not in depth, but in passing. I am surprised it is so short because it seems potential miniseries material, with a solid cast and reasonably good writing. The humiliating moments are truly impacting, as well as the happier ones, and my only complaint is having seen the later film first, because this one doesn't seem quite as impressive in comparison. However, we also have the benefit of seeing the effect of the Blitz on the royal family, and of encountering a fuller portrait of Bertie's eldest daughter, Elizabeth. His romance with Elizabeth is a tad corny at times but ultimately very sweet.
One of the more controversial aspects of the production is its depiction of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson -- they are completely unlikable characters, never far from mocking Bertie and his "simple country wife." The depiction is so skewed that at the end, the host comes on to fill the audience in why the writers went in that direction, in order to accommodate the increasing animosity toward them that the British experienced after the war, and a view many hold today: that it was not a great, passionate love affair but a serious insult and a shirking of duty. Having said that, I did not much mind it but coming off other, more romanticized depictions of them it may startle some viewers. For the conscientious audience, there is not really anything to be concerned about in this film other than a handful of bad words (one each of buggar, b*tch, and d*mn). There is some mild violence in the form of bombings in London, and archival footage of Pearl Harbor smoldering. Certain political figures on both sides of the pond may or may not be stereotyped; Bertie is quite frustrated with an American president's promise to assist in fighting Germany and then his reluctance to become involved.
One of the best things about this film is the true depth of the characters; while we become fond of the leading couple fairly quickly, it is not until the second half that we see their true greatness. One of the finest moments is when they are visiting a family who has been bombed out in lower London, and someone mentions to Elizabeth that she must be dressed in her Sunday best. She replies with a smile, "Wouldn't you do the same for me?" It's no small wonder that many families emerged from the war with a great fondness for their "replacement" monarch... I have, too.