After its theatrical release late last year, you might have had to look around a little to find “The King’s Speech,” starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter. As events have proved, the film was well worth the effort. Firth won the Best Actor award for his mesmerizing work in an extraordinarily demanding role. But Rush and Carter were also in the Oscar hunt, along with director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler, both of whose histories are chiefly in television. Seidler won his Oscar, and deservedly so: it’s a good story, told with intelligence, humor and compassion. It’s now available on DVD.
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 (Carter), runs through a series of doctors trying to help him correct the problem, all to no avail, though to considerably (and painfully) humorous effect.
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 original “R” rating came chiefly from these scenes: it has since been “cleaned up,” I understand, and more’s the pity. In any case, 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 since their childhoods. The historical record shows that the address succeeded, the first of many wartime speeches George gave, all of them aided by Logue’s careful preparation and coaching.
The plot may not 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 sad human costs 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, Hooper 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. If you missed it in the theater, don’t repeat that mistake.