You might have to look around a little to find “The King’s Speech,” starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham-Carter. Do it: the film is well worth the effort. Firth, in particular has been mentioned as the early favorite for the Best Actor award for his mesmerizing work in an extraordinarily demanding role. But Rush and Cater should also be in the Oscar hunt, as should director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler, both of whose histories are chiefly in television. And don’t shy away because this is another British production and might make you think during the show. It’s a good story, told with intelligence, humor and compassion.
Firth plays King George the VI of England, perhaps best known as the man who reluctantly ascended the throne after his older brother stepped down. The chief reason for George’s hesitancy is his stammering, a problem which has plagued him since childhood. The film opens in 1925 as he attempts to address a stadium full of people and basically freezes. His wife, Elizabeth (Bonham-Carter), runs through a series of doctors trying to help him correct the problem, all to no avail.
In a last, desperate attempt, she finds speech therapist Lionel Logue (Rush) whose only credentials are the successes he has had. A sometime actor and elocution teacher, Logue employs unorthodox methods to get results. At first, his royal client—whom Logue calls by his nickname, Bertie—is royally put off by the teacher’s impertinence. But, as Logue informs him, “my castle, my rules,” so he has to play along. Doing so involves him in some pretty silly looking business: jumping up and down, singing and dancing, even cursing extravagantly. (The movie’s “PG-13” rating comes chiefly from these scenes, but I doubt that it would hinder the moral development of the young.)
The movie’s crisis, which gives the title its secondary meaning, is the radio speech George must give when Britain enters WWII against Germany. His older brother, nicely played by Guy Pearce, has given up leading his country to marry the woman he loves, so the heavy burden of that task falls to the man whose speech defect he has mocked. The historical record shows that the address succeeded, the first of many wartime speeches Gorge gave, all of them aided by Logue’s careful preparation and coaching.
The plot doesn’t sound like the stuff of great films, but the masterful acting bumps it to that level. Firth gives a fully-rounded portrait of an aristocrat whose common defect brings him down to the level of a commoner, and one who isn’t that long on respect for the Crown to begin with. (Logue is an Australian, as he continually reminds “Bertie,” and one who has witnessed the results of the British Empire’s war.) Lionel’s calm insistence on their equality and the sparks that fly between the two men because of that assumption create some of the movie’s most compelling scenes.
“The King’s Speech” plays like a good stage drama, Cooper only occasionally resorting to big crowd scenes or outside scenery to make a point. Eve Stewart’s production design recreates the 1930s credibly, and Alexandre Desplat’s music underscores and counterpoints the action richly. But this is an “actor’s movie”: Firth and Rush are compelling throughout, eliciting a full range of emotions from their characters and their audience as well as opening up some intriguing historical vistas. The only drawback: you may find every other movie you see this year a mild disappointment by comparison.