The man who epitomised Englishness on the screen, doesn’t even feel that he belongs to the English society.
Last year, Colin Firth awed Toronto International film festival audience playing a gay British professor who grapples with solitude after the death of his partner in “Single man“, for which he earned an Oscar nomination. This year, the same audience gave his new film “The King’s Speech,” in which he portrays a stuttering King George VI, the festival’s top prize, sparking buzz for another Oscar nod.
“The King’s Speech” tells the true story of George VI (the father of Queen Elizabeth II), also known Bertie, who reluctantly took the English throne in 1936 when his brother, Edward, abdicated in order to marry an American divorcee.
Unable to speak to his subjects due to a chronic stuttering, the King seeks help from a radical Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush), with whom he forged an unlikely friendship.
I met Firth at the Marriott hotel in Toronto, just before the premiere of his film at the festival. Dressed formally in a white shirt and a dark suit, he greets me courteously, before he sits down and talks with impeccable eloquence, exhibiting vast erudition of history, and profound understanding of and deep sympathy for King George VI’s predicament.
The early days of radio were an unfortunate interlude for George VI, because ten years before he wouldn’t have been required to speak on radio and ten years later his speech would’ve been recorded and the stuttering would’ve been edited out.
“This poor guy had to do it totally unexpectedly in that moment, and on top of that, as luck would have it, a massive war was looming where his adversaries were the best in the business,” Firth says. “Hitler and Mussolini could take a microphone and hypnotise the masses, and George felt he couldn’t even speak in a private room let alone to a quarter of the world’s population.”
The stakes were high for the unprepared King, who was considered uncharismatic and dull witted. But driven by a sense of a duty and supported by his wife, Elizabeth, he was determined to win the people and save the wobbling throne.
“I think his dry sense of duty is probably what preserved the monarchy. He did absolutely everything he could to fulfil his duties in a way that was actually with a sense of being a servant of his people rather than someone who basks in a privilege and I think people gradually grew to respect him for his honesty and sincerity.”
Having played stammering characters in the past, Firth initially thought that he would just paste that on and concentrate on everything else. But he quickly realised that this character was different and he had to start from scratch.
“There are a lot of dangers,” he stresses. “It could slide into pastiche. It’s been used for comedy in the past, however inappropriate that might be, but I did not certainly want this one to be comical. There is actual comedy in this film, and I wanted to pace that so I had to use my judgment as well.”
In his quest to understand the stammering impediment, Firth sought advice from his sister, who is a speech therapist, and talked to the screenwriter, David Seidler, who had overcome a stammer. He found the revelations heartbreaking.
“One of the things that defines us as human beings is language. I think that a person with an impediment to his communication finds himself in a kind of abyss.”
Hence, Firth was not merely interested in playing a stammering man. “The only thing that the audience must see is the struggle to climb out of those terrible silences that must feel like they last a thousand years,” he says.
But Firth wouldn’t reveal the psychological and physical tricks he employed to achieve that. “They are personal,” he says. “They were physically very strenuous and I finished the day with headaches.”
Whatever tricks he used, his performance has cemented his standing as one of the best actors of his generation and has already earned him several awards and recognitions from the industry.
The British actor began his career in West End dramas and on the big screen in period pieces, often literary adaptations, before he made his big break in 1995 with his arguably definitive screen portrayal of Fitzwilliam Darcy in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” followed by a number of successful romantic comedies, including “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and broader historic dramas, such as “The Girl with the Pearl Earring.”
Portraying formal, reserved English characters, Firth has epitomised Englishness. Surprisingly, he denies even belonging to the English society, albeit he admits contributing to stereotyping the English people.
“I’ve through film tended to represent precisely the kind of Englishman that I am not, very much the repressed Englishman of mythology,” he quips. “It’s hard to run into those guys now really. My generation weren’t saying: ‘I can’t wait to grow up so I can put on a pinstripe suit and go to office’. They were piercing their ears and learning the guitar. If you want to define an Englishman, you might do just as well to take Keith Richards or Ray Winstone as to take John Major or Prince Charles,” he laughs.
The son of academic lecturers, who were constantly on the move, Firth was born in 1960 in Hampshire, and raised in Nigera for four years before settling back in England. And because his mother grew up in the US, he spent a year at School in St. Louis, Missouri. He also lived for a while in Canada.
Being the son of India-born parents, having lived in different societies and countries, being married to an Italian woman and having a son in the US have instilled a sense of rootlessness and not belonging to the British counties where he grew up. Although he is grateful for the diversity in his life and for being as comfortable with people around the world as with the people from his own neighbourhood, he sometimes longs to belong.
“I think feeling rootless can produce a kind of heartache.” He reflects. “I think I would feel more peaceful if I had somewhere that was absolutely home and I don’t have that but I feel incredibly enriched by all the rest of it.”
Having just turned 50, Firth relishes the opportunities that come with old age, because he gets to play characters with a past not just the anxieties of youth.
“This puts you in a middle of narrative somehow. I am far more likely to play a grieving father, for instance. I’m dealing with characters who experience loss, regret, or who’ve given up on life. I appreciate that and it makes me feel a lot better about the physical deterioration that I’m experiencing,” he laughs.
Firth lives in London with his wife, Livia, an Italian film-maker, whom he married in 1997, and his two sons, Luca, nine, and Mateo, seven. He also has a 20-year-old son, William, from an earlier relationship with actress Meg Tilly.
Frankly, English or not, Colin Firth is a true gentlemen.