There’s a king with a crippling stammer who hires an unorthodox
speech therapist so he can deliver the oration that his people so
desperately need in time of war. It sounds like a rather thin premise on
the surface, doesn’t it? Not with this movie.
The King’s Speech does everything it possibly can to make this
premise interesting and important. For starters, there’s the fact that
this movie takes place in the early-to-mid 1900s, when radio technology
was still new. The concept of politicians speaking directly to their
constituents is something we take for granted nowadays, but it was
something that heads of state were still getting used to back then.
Furthermore — just as now — people are very quick to turn on
government leaders who can’t speak their minds plainly. I think the
movie sums it up nicely when our protagonist says of Hitler — he of the
Holocaust and the Third Reich — “I don’t know [what he’s saying], but
he seems to be saying it rather well.”
Speaking of which, the movie is very good at reminding us just what a
terrible specter WWII must have been for Europe just before Hitler
started his attempts at world domination. World War I had only ended a
couple of decades prior, after all, and another war even more terrible
than the first was already looming just over the horizon. Moreover,
England was in an especially bad spot as its royal family was in
shambles at this point: The current king, George V, was elderly with
precious few years left in him. The next in line, Edward VIII, was a
philanderer who sought to marry a divorced woman, making him an unfit
head of England’s church. After him is Prince Albert (otherwise known as
King George VI or “Berty”), played by Colin Firth as our main
character, who can barely string three words together without stutters
or lengthy pauses.
I remind you (as the film does) that British royalty doesn’t have any
real governing power. They can’t levy taxes, pass laws or invade
countries without permission from the Parliament. Rather, the job of
British royalty is primarily to act as a figurehead. They are the face
and the voice of the country. So when one of the country’s two foremost
spokesmen is morally compromised and the other is unable to speak,
that’s a pretty big problem.
So Berty (or rather, his wife) goes to hire a speech therapist named
Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush. You might think that the rest of
the movie would be a spin on the old “Rocky” formula, with our lead
character getting coached until he improves enough to tackle the big
challenge at the climax. And you’d be right, but only partially.
Surprisingly, this movie doesn’t focus on Berty’s struggle so much as
it focuses on his developing friendship with Lionel. The therapist
insists that their working relationship be founded on equality, going so
far as to persistently call his royal patient by his first name and
request that he do likewise. This was extremely imprudent, considering
the class distinctions of Britain, and the film frequently makes it
clear just how unusual it was that a royal should be so trusting and
cordial to a commoner. One from Australia, no less.
Yet the two gradually come to develop a solid and candid friendship
with each other. The film shows this in a manner that’s steadily paced
and totally believable, structuring the narrative around their voice
exercises, drinking sessions, falling-outs and reconciliations. It all
builds up to the climax, which beautifully sticks the landing in every
way. We see the wartime speech’s effect on the citizens of Britain, we
see Berty overcome his difficulty and most importantly, we see him
working with Lionel as a cohesive team to coax the words out. And it’s
all topped off with a nice little confident joke. Brilliant.
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are both wonderful in their respective
roles. Firth is very convincing in his depiction of the stutter and all
its peculiarities (which sounds he has trouble with, when it comes and
goes, etc.). Rush, meanwhile, is brimming over with energy and dry wit.
Together, they have wonderful chemistry and they work together perfectly
to make the film’s central relationship work. They also get a lot of
funny scenes together, notably when Firth is cursing up a storm as a
Helena Bonham Carter also gets a role as Bertie’s wife, Queen
Elizabeth (yes, that
one). I don’t know what compelled her to do a film without Tim
Burton, but if this is what comes of such a decision, then I hope Carter
does it more often. She’s simply wonderful in this film, playing her
character as a smart and shrewd woman, as well as a loving wife.
Meanwhile, Guy Pearce comes back from obscurity to play the philandering
brother, King Edward VIII. Pearce solidly delivers a character who’s
attractive and charismatic, but also flighty and foolish.
The supporting cast also features such greats as Derek Jacobi and
Michael Gambon, both of whom turn in brief yet powerful performances
(even if Jacobi’s archbishop is something of a sniveling dolt). The only
weak link here is Timothy Spall, who was spectacularly miscast as
Winston Churchill. Just think about that for a minute. The guy most
famous in the States for playing Peter “Wormtail” Pettigrew was cast as
one of history’s greatest orators and one of WWII’s most legendary
figures. They cast this
guy to play this
guy. It goes about as well as you’d expect. Spall is clearly giving
the role all he’s got, but it just isn’t enough. Fortunately, Churchill
is a very minor role here (he’s not even Prime Minister yet), so it
doesn’t hurt the film too badly.
The score and cinematography are good enough for a film that’s so
completely centered on its script and cast. The music is quite solid and
the cinematography is nicely restrained in its use of close-ups. I was
particularly fond of Bertie’s first vocal practice, in which the entire
sequence is shot without ever showing us his mouth. Rather clever, that.
The King’s Speech is a very pleasant little movie, with a very
funny script acted out by a cast of aces. Even the miscast Spall is
giving every bit of his considerable talent here. Most importantly, the
film is built around Firth and Rush, both of whom are wonderful to see
as they carry the film. It isn’t the year’s best, but it’s still good
for Oscar consideration and definitely worth your time and money.