Albert, son of King George V (Michael Gambon), believed he was protected from the humiliations of public oration because his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) was in succession. But when Edward, as king, abdicates to marry American socialite Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), Albert is reluctantly enthroned.
Prior to this, Albert and Lionel had achieved an uneasy alliance which breaks apart after Lionel suggests “Bertie” is his brother’s better. What was intended as inspirational is received by Albert as the impertinence of a “nobody.” (It’s a heartbreaking scene.) Their ultimate reconciliation, which is as sensitively rendered as the fine-drawn gradations of friendship preceding it, is the heart of the movie.
It is Lionel’s belief that Albert, whom he regards as “the bravest man I know,” could be a wonderful king. On the evidence available to him, this might seem like a stretch – Albert’s bravery, after all, is essentially confined to eradicating his stammer, and we never hear him discuss statesmanship, about which he seems adamantly uninterested.
But the conceit works because the filmmakers, like Lionel, regard Albert in his totality. He’s not King George VI, he’s a man. This is one of the very few films that plumb the psychological resonances of royalty instead of merely illustrating them. Firth is tremendously touching in the role without even once condescending to the audience. It would have been easy to sentimentalize Albert into a common-man-under-the-skin. But Firth gives us instead a portrait of a nowhere man suddenly thrust onto the world stage. His aloneness is palpable.
When asked by Lionel if he was ever close to anyone growing up, Albert speaks of his nannies. With his own daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, Albert, in his own guarded way, is the parent he probably wished he had. There’s a wonderful scene where he tells them a story about a penguin, and he seems to be regressing at that moment into an idyllic fantasy of what his own childhood might have been like. (He also doesn’t stammer as much with them.)