Theatrical Review: A tale of triumph over adversity on a personal and global scale, The King’s Speech is damn near the perfect awards-season film. But thanks to a deft touch with its Big Themes and exhilarating performances from Colin Firth and Geoffery Rush, it’s also plenty entertaining.
There are times watching director Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech when you feel like ticking off a “prestige” checklist: Period Britain? Check. A peek into the lives of royals? Check. Dysfunctional family dynamics? Check. Personal hardship? Check. An unlikely doctor-patient friendship? Check. The heavy drums of war on the horizon? Check. Tremendous performances by Very Good Ahhk-Tors? Check and check!
What keeps The King’s Speech from feeling like an airless awards-shelf filler is that Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler have fit all this together so seamlessly–every fine element works in perfect concert with the other, with the end result resonating dramatically across multiple levels.
The film centers on Colin Firth as Bertie/Albert, the future King George VI of Britain: son to the authoritarian George V (Michael Gambon), second prince to his feckless older brother Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), husband to Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter as the woman who would one day become the Queen Mother), and of course father to Elizabeth, the current Queen of England.
With that sort of impressive royal cast of characters assembled, Hooper and Seidler flawlessly weave together three themes. There’s a crisis of succession, as Edward ascends the throne in 1936 but is unwilling to give up his lover, the (sorta) divorced American Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). (Pearce’s Edward is not the noble romantic giving up his crown for love—instead he’s a lazy, appeasement-minded, Nazi-sympathizing playboy taken in by a professional gold digger.)
There’s Old Hitler (who, we’re reminded with grim irony, is an excellent public speaker) making very threatening gestures down on the Continent, while Timothy Spall’s Churchill (not yet PM) grumbles warnings from the corners.
And there’s Bertie’s debilitating stammer, a nearly paralyzing handicap in an age when the emergence of radio is forcing world leaders and royal figureheads to do more than, as the elder George notes, “look good on a horse and not fall off.” As it turns out, his brother’s abdication and Hitler’s plans for domination will eventually require Bertie to inspire and rally an empire… by speaking to it across the airwaves.
Enter Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, the real-life Australian speech therapist who uses unorthodox methods to try and cure Bertie. With echoes of The Madness of King George and Restoration, Lionel and Bertie’s doctor-patient relationship and eventual friendship forms the core of The King’s Speech.
Hooper, who directed HBO’s John Adams and last year’s excellent The Damned United, has a knack for helping talented actors bring out the humanity amid the grandeur in larger-than-life historical figures.
Rush has no trouble making Lionel lovable, even as the character endures repeated dismissals by Brits who cannot help but look down on a lowly Australian “colonist.” And Bonham Carter’s Elizabeth is on hand to remind us that royal protocols and class distinctions must be adhered to, lest all decorum and dignity is lost.
But Firth’s work is even more impressive. He sloughs off much of his sexy humility to play Bertie as damaged, guarded and angry. It’s a tour-de-force and not just for the reedy stammering and vocal tangles, but the pain and frustration in Bertie’s eyes even as he sets his jaw and stiffens his upper lip.
Using a minor angle onto a major historical stage, The King’s Speech plays to Americans and British viewers’ craving for the sumptuous details of royal life while simultaneously having the aristocracy revealed as regular folks with regular faults and fears. But it also champions a sense of duty, even at a time when the British monarchy was transitioning from a ruling power to a symbolic inspiration–broadcast to the nation on the wings of new media.