Andy Bockelman: ‘King’s Speech’: A majestic historical biopic
'The King's Speech'
4 out of 4 stars
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter and Guy Pearce.
When you go to a movie, you expect any stuttering to sound rehearsed and phony, particularly with heavy usage.
Yet, with “The King’s Speech,” despite having the eponymous character’s dialogue endemic with flubs and falters, it never sounds the slightest bit fake.
As the technological advances of the world become greater and greater in the 1930s, so does the visibility of the British monarchy, a fact not lost on Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George, the Duke of York (Colin Firth).
Albert, better known to his family as Bertie, has spent his life in shame of his handicap: a stammer prohibiting him from speaking clearly and representing the monarchy with confidence.
When his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), seeks out professional help, he is furious with her for subverting his authority, but the search turns up highly effective speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian expatriate who gives the stubborn royal a new sense of optimism.
But, even as Bertie begins to improve in his speaking skills, family problems arise when his father King George V (Michael Gambon) passes away and his elder brother (Guy Pearce) is hesitant to take up the role of sovereign, leaving the second-born in line for ascension.
Firth is a marvel as Bertie, the man who would become King George VI, whose natural sense of dignity and decorum is halved as a result of his struggle to speak properly, especially at a time when the medium of radio was still a crucial new form of communication, vital to keeping the leaders of the world in touch with the common man. His failed attempt to address a crowd over the wireless in 1925 is an indicator of things to come as he works to free himself of his disability, never quite conquering it but making enormous strides in making his voice heard thanks to his teacher.
Providing an excellent disparity with the stuffy ruler is Rush as unorthodox, unassuming Logue, a has-been Shakespearean actor turned speech therapist who refuses to let Bertie hinder himself by fussing about whether or not he sounds like a fool, additionally insisting on getting to the root of the mental reasons why his client experiences such a severe impediment.
It’s not hard to see why when he’s in the company of his father, with Gambon a brash, roaring parental figure whose influence has strongly affected both his sons.
Pearce is fine, but fittingly brief, as David, the immediate heir to the throne, who takes the title of King Edward VIII upon his father’s death only to renounce his birthright amid great controversy to marry American Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).
The string of distinguished British actors who show up as prominent figures in the first half of the 20th century is substantial, including Claire Bloom as Bertie’s mother, Queen Mary; Derek Jacobi as the rigid Archbishop of Canterbury; and Timothy Spall as future prime minister Winston Churchill.
Leading up to the earliest days of World War II and the first of George VI’s many radio speeches to the empire, the story moves between a focus on the main character and the state of the country over which he presides.
The formalities of royal life that Bertie stoically embraces seem to fade away the more progress he makes in overcoming his stutter, enabling him to drop the less obligatory pretensions of his position and become a self-assured ruler who’s able to stand up for his people as the scourge of war looms on the horizon.
Director Tom Hooper hits every syllable of David Seidler’s screenplay just right, not only with his cast but also in the grandeur and authenticity of the set design, the occasional splicing of period stock footage and the crisp use of the musical score by Alexandre Desplat, who, in his versatility, is quickly becoming the French equivalent of John Williams.
The power of “The King’s Speech” comes from many sources. It’s a feel-good movie about overcoming adversity, it’s an absorbing biography comprising the reigns of Britain’s three most recent kings, and it’s got that special English wit without being unapproachable to American audiences.
Add all these qualities together, and it makes one of the best films of 2010, with an appeal greater than words can describe.