Tom Hooper’s critical darling The King’s Speech could have been made strictly as a breezy piece of crowd-pleasing art house entertainment, light, airy, and ultimately forgettable, and it still would have been worth seeing. Alternately it could have been approached explicitly as a period drama intent on examining the speech impediment of the man who would become King George VI, and his efforts– aided by Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue– to best both the physical and psychological components which comprise the totality of his affliction, and while the result may have felt stiffer and stuffier it still would have been interesting. But rather than opt to create the first film or the second film, Hooper instead chose to allow The King’s Speech to exist as a combination of both, in doing so yielding one of the best pictures released in a year sorely lacking many worth being excited over. Hooper’s movie is so alive and moves so fluidly as to feel completely effortless, but it takes a deft and skilled hand to make the production of a film this accomplished look as easy as he does.
Put bluntly, The King’s Speech is a mirror that shows other, lesser movies that they are inferior.
It’s also genuinely warm, surprisingly funny, and completely, magnetically engrossing. I tend to think Americans have an inquisitive and occasionally superficial fascination with the British monarchy they have absolutely no personal experience with (or even a base knowledge of), and you could argue that The King’s Speech feeds into that fixation, or maybe more accurately is an extension of it. Truthfully The King’s Speech and films like it (2006’s The Queen, for instance) encourage and engender curiosity over obsession; they make it their purpose to enlighten and focus on the substantive instead of the sensational. Be honest with yourself– on its face, a movie about the stammer of the future King (henceforth referred to as Albert or, more affectionately, Bertie) sounds a whole lot less compelling than a movie about the romantic affairs of his older brother, Edward, but Hooper and an excellent cast– including a rarely-better Colin Firth and the always welcome Geoffrey Rush– turn Albert’s public speaking problem into rich and thoroughly rewarding drama.
Indeed, one of the film’s most remarkable characteristics is that it manages to mine so much depth from a plot that could be described as “threat level green”. Even more than that, it does so while using Albert’s stutter as a means to explore– as fully as necessary– subplots so chock-full of interest and conflict that they could be made into their own movies, all in service to the film’s primary narrative thrust and without detracting from it to boot. There’s a movie to be made out of the aforementioned Edward’s determination to marry an American divorcee (and Nazi sympathizer), and out of King George V’s (Michael Gambon) relationships with his children. But while Bertie himself lives in the shadow of his brother and his father, his personal struggle, smaller in scale than those of either family member, trumps all. The King’s Speech does a fantastic job investing us in his story instead of those being told on the sidelines.
Firth is pretty much the talk of the town at present (and will probably continue to be long after he wins the Oscar I’m told that he should have won last year for A Single Man), and rightly so as The King’s Speech easily stands among his best roles. Like Hooper, Firth wields massive skill in his chosen craft; he hardly looks like he’s acting here, embodying the spirit of Albert rather than simply trying to create a character. For many it’s the utterly convincing way he recreates the king’s stammer that impresses, but it’s the aplomb with which he walks the line of royalty while simultaneously making Albert into a hapless man saddled, against his will, with great responsibility toward his country and his people that really makes Firth’s performance one to savor.
For all of the praise being accorded (rightfully) to Firth, however, my takeaway from the film is Geoffrey Rush’s performance as Lionel Logue, the man sought out and hired Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter, who appears to be invigorated by taking a breather from Harry Potter and her husband) to succeed in the task of curing Albert where the Duke’s knighted court physicians failed. As the story goes, Logue proves to be successful despite his occasionally odd methods, which include extensive use of curse words and tongue twisters, and the two become life-long friends. It’s touching and it sounds sappy, but both actors sell the relationship perfectly and keep it palatable rather than saccharine. They’re a bit of an odd couple, with Rush playing Oscar to Firth’s Felix; maybe that’s a bit drastic but the point is that Rush plays the more relaxed and unbuttoned aspect of their pairing. He’s charming and personable while Albert is initially standoffish and rigid; it’s clear from the word “go” that Rush is having a great time bringing the character to life. Lionel grapples with his own personal issues, too, from his failed acting career to his position as an outsider in English society by virtue of his nationality, and while the film is about Albert there’s plenty of room for Rush to ruminate on Lionel’s demons, too.
The movie introduces the two men to one another early on, and the friendship that develops between them plays out against a backdrop of unfolding world history (Albert’s ascension to the throne plays out amidst growing concerns over Germany and a certain future dictator). And of course, as seems to be part and parcel in films about the monarchy, the film naturally examines how the insular lives of the royal family create a sort of disharmony; as the ruling class, how do you reign over people you don’t have any contact with or understanding of? But primarily this is a movie about how two people from such drastically different cultures impacted one another. For Albert, The King’s Speech is about overcoming his stammer and realizing that he, too, can be a great king; for Lionel, the failed actor and cultural odd man out, it’s about realizing his sense of self-worth and belonging. And for the audience, The King’s Speech is a totally absorbing and gratifying experience through its sense of humor and its inclination to uplift. Driven by two masterwork performances from two of the best actors of the day, and directed impeccably by a man who frankly should make more feature films, this is undoubtedly one of the best times you can have in a theater this season and one of the strongest pictures of 2010.