Americans love kings, so long as they needn’t answer to them, and no king of England had a more American success story than that admirable underdog George VI, Duke of York, who overcame a dreadful stammer to rally his people against Hitler. A stirring, handsomely mounted tale of unlikely friendship starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, “The King’s Speech” explores the bond between the painfully shy thirtysomething prince and the just-this-side-of-common, yet anything-but-ordinary speech therapist who gave the man back his confidence. Weinstein-backed November release should tap into the same audience that made “The Queen” a prestige hit.
Though hardly intended as a public service message, “The King’s Speech” goes a long way to repair decades of vaudeville-style misrepresentation on the subject of stuttering, which traditionally serves either for comic effect (think Porky Pig) or as lazy shorthand for a certain softness of mind, character or spine. Screenwriter David Seidler approaches the condition from another angle entirely, spotlighting a moment in history when the rise of radio and newsreels allowed the public to listen to their leaders, shifting the burden of government from intellect to eloquence.
These pressures are too much for Prince Albert (Firth), whose crippling speech impediment causes public embarrassment at 1925’s British Empire Exhibition. Director Tom Hooper (HBO’s “John Adams,” “The Damned United”) alternates between nervous Albert and the fussy yet professional BBC announcer in this opening scene to contrast one man dragged into public speaking with another who’d elected the bloody job for himself.
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Albert’s father, King George V (authoritatively played by Michael Gambon), is no more fond of the wireless, but eventually embraces the device for a series of annual Christmas addresses. Though tough on his tongue-tied son, he views Albert as a more responsible successor than his reckless brother Edward (Guy Pearce), who indeed will famously renounce the throne to marry American socialite Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). But George V fears the stammer is unbefitting the throne. “In the past, all a king had to do was wear a uniform and not fall off his horse,” he laments.With responsibility for the crown looming, Albert’s wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, in her most effectively restrained performance since “The Wings of the Dove”) seeks out the services of Lionel Logue (Rush), a frustrated Australian actor turned speech therapist. As portrayed by Rush, Logue is what some politely call a “force of nature” — all bluster, no tact, yet incredibly effective in his unconventional approach, rejecting the institutional thinking of the time in favor of vocal exercises and amateur psychotherapy.
While Seidler cleverly uses the prince’s handicap as a point of entry, “The King’s Speech” centers on the rocky connection that forms between Bertie (as the speech therapist calls the prince) and Lionel, whose extraordinary friendship arises directly from the latter’s insistence on a first-name, equal-to-equal dynamic quite unlike anything the Duke of York had previously encountered. Though few would deem it scandalous today, the film rather boldly dares to humanize a figure traditionally held at arm’s length from the public and treated with divine respect, deriving much of its humor from the brusque treatment the stuffy monarch-to-be receives from the irreverent Lionel (including a litany of expletives sure to earn the otherwise all-ages-friendly film an R rating).
While far from easy, both roles provide a delightful opportunity for Firth and Rush to poke a bit of fun at their profession. Firth (who is a decade older than Albert-cum-George was at the time of his coronation, and a good deal more handsome) has used the “stammering Englishman” stereotype frequently enough before, in such films as “Pride and Prejudice” and “A Month in the Country.” Here, the affliction extends well beyond bashful affectation, looking and sounding more like a man drowning in plain air as his face swells and his throat clucks, yet no words come out. Rush’s character, meanwhile, is that most delicious of caricatures, a recklessly bad actor whose shortcomings are embellished by someone who clearly knows better.
On the surface, Rush appears to have the showier of the two parts. But the big scenes are indisputably Firth’s, with two major speeches bookending the film (the latter one being the 1939 radio broadcast with which King George VI addressed a nation entering into war with Germany) and a surprisingly candid confession at roughly the midway point (in which Albert reveals the abusive treatment that likely created his stammer in the first place).
Hooper, who nimbly sidestepped the pitfalls of the generic sports movie in “The Damned United,” proves equally spry in the minefield of blue-blood biopics by using much the same m.o. — focusing on the uncommonly strong bond between two men (the director reunites with Timothy Spall here as a rather comical-looking Winston Churchill). Another repeat collaborator, production designer Eve Stewart, re-creates both royal digs and Logue’s wonderfully disheveled atelier, while Alexandre Desplat’s score gives the film an appropriate gravitas.