The King’s Speech *** ½
Directed by: Tom Hooper.
Written By: David Seidler.
Starring: Colin Firth (King George VI), Helena Bonham Carter (Queen Elizabeth), Geoffrey Rush (Lionel Logue), Guy Pearce (King Edward VIII), Derek Jacobi (Archbishop Cosmo Lang), Michael Gambon (King George V), Jennifer Ehle (Myrtle Logue), Freya Wilson (Princess Elizabeth), Ramona Marquez (Princess Margaret), Claire Bloom (Queen Mary), Eve Best (Wallis Simpson), Timothy Spall (Winston Churchill), Roger Parrott (Neville Chamberlain).
As a child, I had a stutter. I still regress to having one once in a while - when I’m nervous is when it usually happens. My thoughts move faster than my mouth can, and I get tongue tied. I know what I want to say, but get tongue tied, and cannot quite get it out. I thought back to my own speech therapy as a child when I was watching The King’s Speech when King George VI (Colin Firth) goes to see a failed actor turned therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). I had different therapy, but the concept is the same - tricks that help get you through the speech, but mainly it’s about relaxing and allowing your words to flow. Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech is a classically structured costume drama. It is precisely the film you expect it to be from the previews, and yet it is a film that is gloriously entertaining from beginning to end - anchored by great performances, a witty screenplay and fine period detail. If you like this type of film, its unlikely there is a better film in 2010 for you.
The film opens with King George, then just the Duke of York, and going by his given name Albert, trying to make a speech in 1925. He humiliates himself, and cannot get the words out. He tries one doctor after another, one treatment after another, and nothing works. Luckily for him, he is the second born son of the King - and as such, his roll will be largely ceremonial, and no one will really pay much attention to him. His older brother David (Guy Pearce) will become King. And although David is a playboy, who cares more about his affairs and his parties, then running the country - he can speak when it suits him. But there is that troublesome American woman, who has been divorced once already and is heading for a second one that David can just not seem to let go of. If he insists on marrying her, than Albert will have to become king. Nothing could scare him more.
Lionel Logue is not a typical choice for a speech therapist to a King. He is not a doctor - he’s not even British, but from Australia. He has spent his life trying, and failing, to become an actor and simply giving speech therapy lessons as a way to make ends meet. When Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), Albert’s wife, first shows up, he doesn’t correct her when she calls him doctor, nor does he correct Albert when he does the same thing. He knows what this could mean to him and his family - and he doesn’t want to screw it up.
The heart of the movie is made up of those scenes between Albert and Lionel - and Firth and Rush deliver two of the best performances of the year. They have a natural chemistry together, and they are perfectly suited to their roles. I wonder how hard it was for Firth, who like any British actor, is excellent at speaking, to affect that stammer. He does it brilliantly. He also captures that insecurity, that nervousness that makes it all believable - but also the royal training - the British stiff upper lip. He is shocked by Lionel at first - especially when he starts calling him Bertie (a name only his family uses), but the results are there. For his part, Rush is a natural ham - it's what he does best as an actor, and in this performance, it works. He is over the top, but that’s works. I liked the contrast between the two of them - the different accents, the different families, the different homes, which emphasizes just what a big difference there is between them. The rest of the supporting cast is fine as well. It’s not a very demanding role for Helena Bonham Carter, but she plays it perfectly (she has wonderful comic timing) and its nice to see here in something other than the latest Tim Burton or Harry Potter film. Guy Pearce (although I had a hard time believing he was Firth’s older brother) is great as the selfish David (and the film does paint him that way, in contrast to the romantic view of him giving up the thrown that many people like to take), and Michael Gambon is appropriately regal, and somewhat cruel, in his few scenes as their father.
The film is classically structured. Cynics will say that the film was designed specially to do well at the Oscars, exploiting the Academy’s love of British period pieces. While that may be true to a certain extent, the film works wonderfully well on its own terms. It is one of the most entertaining films you will see this year - and it hardly feels like a typically stuffy costume drama. That’s because Firth and Rush capture the people beneath their roles - and because the everything in the film is so well done. No, it’s not original, but when a film is this well done, that’s not really the point is it?