The intelligent, foursquare British drama The King’s Speech is currently racking up all manner of awards and citations, and while it’s not one of the year’s best movies, its lead performance deserves all the praise it’s been given and more. Most of the film takes place in the mid-1930s, when Prince Albert, the Duke of York (Colin Firth) — known as “Bertie” to his family — lives the cosseted life of the younger son of King George V (Michael Gambon).
Happy as a husband and father of two daughters, Bertie is a stammerer who has stopped seeking treatment for his speech impediment after a string of bad experiences. His wife, Princess Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), continues to seek out therapists on the sly, which is how she finds Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a failed Australian actor who has earned a living administering speech therapy to shell-shocked World War I veterans. As Lionel’s unusual methods start to gain traction with a reluctant Bertie, the treatment takes on new urgency after the king dies and Bertie’s weak, silly older brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), vacates the throne to marry Wallis Simpson. With Bertie unexpectedly set to become King George VI, he must conquer his impediment to fulfill his royal duties.
The superb acting is the best thing here. Bonham Carter is unusually delicate, and Timothy Spall (who’s always good to have around) contributes an amusing cameo as Churchill. After all the hamming that Rush has done in the Pirates of the Caribbean films and elsewhere, it’s nice to see that he can still be restrained and controlled. He even holds back during an early scene when Lionel blows an audition for a community theater’s production of Richard III. The dexterity of Rush’s performance is easy to overlook but crucial to the movie’s success, as Lionel sets down boundaries and tries to accommodate his patient’s difficult temperament and peculiar circumstances.
For all that, the show firmly belongs to Firth, whose work here betters his performance in last year’s A Single Man, which was the finest of his career until then. He is compelling from the opening sequence, which finds Bertie as he’s about to deliver a speech at Wembley Stadium in 1925, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else. Firth’s performance is technically keen when it comes to the stammer, as the prince’s entire body seems to want to scream the next word that just won’t come out. He’s even better, though, at capturing the future ruler’s underlying character. It’s hard not to be charmed by a man who, early on, invents a bedtime story for his daughters that involves himself being transformed into a penguin. Similarly, it’s hard not to feel for him later on, when those girls suddenly greet him as their king rather than as their father, and a wounded look crosses his face as he realizes that he can’t tell them not to do that.
Most of the scenes are lengthy conversations between Bertie and Lionel in the latter’s office, which gives the movie a stagey feel. (Screenwriter David Seidler, a stutterer in real life, wrote stage and film versions of this story at the same time. The theatrical play is looking for a spring premiere date.) This approach works well in the early scenes that detail Lionel’s treatment program; the real-life Logue actually did have the future king do breathing exercises lying on the floor while his wife sat on his diaphragm. Things get choppier in the second half, especially during a set-to in Westminster Abbey on coronation’s eve when the prince’s relations with his therapist blow hot, cold, and hot again over the course of a few minutes.
The dialogue is frequently clever — for some reason, I cracked up during the scene when Edward airily dismisses Bertie at a cocktail party, saying he’s busy “kinging” — but the psychology behind Bertie’s speech defect is all too neatly explained. (By the way, the film’s “R” rating is for a stream of obscenities that Bertie lets out during his therapy to help him with his fluency. Note to the MPAA: That “R” is stupid.) Tom Hooper, a TV director who made an excellent film debut with last year’s soccer drama The Damned United, puts all this together in that sturdy British style that we know so well and does a pretty fair job of papering over some of the seams in the script.
The film’s climax is set during the 1939 radio speech given by the king, declaring Britain to be at war with Germany. It’s a bit jarring that the film depicts this grim juncture in the nation’s history as a moment of personal triumph for the monarch. Yet this is more than the story about overcoming a speech defect. It’s about a frightened man, thrust into a role that he never wanted, who finds it in himself to rise to the occasion. His struggle to do so, played out in each one of Colin Firth’s agonized pauses and hesitations, is what makes The King’s Speech rewarding to hear.
The King’s Speech
Starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. Directed by Tom Hooper. Written by David Seidler. Rated R.