Unless you knew better, telling you that “The King’s Speech” is a lovely period piece set in the days before World War II and co-produced by the UK Film Council might have you flipping to your local PBS station to see when it’s playing. It follows the story of the Prince Albert, or “Bertie,” as he tries to fly under the royal radar and live a quiet life with his wife and two children. Aside from the fact that his brother is next in line for the throne, Bertie’s reluctance to enter the spotlight is due to his terrible stammer, an affliction made the more egregious by the advent of radio. As the title suggests and anyone familiar with royal history knows, he doesn’t not get to live happily ever after as a semi-obscure duke.
The movie opens with an embarrassing incident at Wimbledon, where Bertie fails miserably at addressing a stadium full of people and about half the world listening via radio. His subsequent despair drives his wife to seek the help of one last speech therapist, the unorthodox Lionel Logue.
Make no mistake, this is not some stuffy episode of “Masterpiece Theater” or a big-screen variant thereof. Instead, “The King’s Speech” is a warm, endearing and witty film ostensibly about one man’s struggle with a speech impediment. However, it’s cares much more deeply about the pressures of expectation and how friendship guides us through trying times.
From the outset, Lionel is insistent on a level of familiarity and openness that has evidently not been experienced by the prince even among his peers. David Seidler’s script distills their sessions into uncomfortable and enlightening encounters. They serve to explore the psychological source of Bertie’s stammer while breaking down the barriers between two men with a multitude of social strata between them. In the process, they progress from awkward mistrust to a full-fledged and important friendship.
Director Tom Hooper constructs an elegant visual language that consistently evokes the discomfort of his protagonist. Instead of gateways to Bertie’s people, microphones are framed as barriers. The sessions between Lionel and Bertie are shot in uncomfortably unbalanced compositions as the kind doctor digs past the layers of social propriety and royal reserve to get to the root of Bertie’s problem.
Colin Firth or, as his fans know him, the incarnation of Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy, disappears into the role of Bertie. As always, a role saddled with some sort of impediment garners attention. However, while he plays the stammer superbly well, the strength of Firth’s turn as Bertie is its emotional honesty. It’s a portrayal of a man in conflict with himself on many levels, a conflict of which the stammer is only a superficial symptom. It’s one of those transformative roles that breaks an actor out of any sort of type-casting he may suffer from.
Geoffrey Rush isn’t nearly as challenged as his co-star, but he still delivers a charming performance. As Lionel Logue, he exudes a calmness and confidence in his methods that allow him to breach accepted social boundaries without flinching. Imagine having President Obama in your office and insisting on calling him Barry. And this on meeting him for the first time. Yet, Rush’s performance isn’t grounded on arrogance or a false sense of entitlement. What makes these moments all the more extraordinary are the scenes which show just how ordinary a man Logue is otherwise. Rush conveys that undercurrent of humility even while making his outrageous demands.
The supporting cast is marvelous as well. Guy Pearce plays the constantly love-struck King Edward. Usually the tough guy, Pearce gives Edward just the right amount of reckless romantic inclination and even the slightest touch of cowardice. Helena Bonham Carter plays Bertie’s wife, eventually known as Queen Elizabeth. They share a loving and genuine relationship made all the more believable by the warm chemistry between Carter and Firth. Michael Gambon, probably known best to American audiences as “Harry Potter’s” Dumbledore, plays the King George V, father of the two princes. He conveys a level of authority and worry expected of an elderly king with two apparently unworthy successors.
If you want to see “The King’s Speech,” you’ll have to make the drive out to Knoxville to catch it. As of my last inquiry, despite its steadily increasing box office momentum due to its critical acclaim and awards nominations, the local theater has no plans to pick it up for a run. However, it’s a drive well worth taking.