It begins in paralyzed silence, with a speech aborted by a stammering prince, and ends in vocal triumph, with a regal address stirring enough to echo through history. In between, we're treated to a more-or-less true story that turns Pygmalion on its fanciful head - this time, it's the lowly commoner who teaches none other than the British monarch how to speak the King's English.
Yes, The King's Speech is a lively burst of populist rhetoric, superbly performed and guaranteed to please even discriminating crowds.
But, first, the paralysis. In 1925, George V's second son - known as the Duke of York to the many but just "Bertie" to his royal buddies - appears in Wembley Stadium to offer the closing remarks at the British Empire Exhibition. Before him stands one radio microphone and a throng of thousands. Neither hears a word.
His face contorted in a rictus of fear, he simply cannot speak. The stammer that arose in his childhood has struck with a vengeance. Publicly, he's mute. Privately, he's seeking help from top doctors but, somehow, their prescribed treatment - marbles in the mouth ("It cured Demosthenes") and heavy doses of nicotine ("Cigarettes calm the nerves and give you confidence") - has yet to effect any improvement.
Enter the voice of reason, which happens to belong to a mere commoner and a transplanted Aussie to boot. His name is Lionel Logue, a speech therapist lacking a medical degree but not common sense. At the behest of his wife Elizabeth, a skeptical Bertie seeks him out and their cloistered sessions begin. So does the movie.
Instantly, what might have been just another British period piece soars into an actors' dazzling clinic - Colin Firth as the impeded king-to-be, Geoffrey Rush as the impediment's remover. In lesser hands, these scenes could easily have degenerated into sentimentality or farce. Instead, in theirs, they're revealing and playful and witty and touching and, at the climax, quite moving. That's the charm of this film. Amid a costume drama filled with famous people, it's essentially a quiet two-hander, a bromance between the oddest of couples - the stammering prince and the instructive pauper.
We watch as their relationship unfolds on dual fronts simultaneously. Both involve the elimination of barriers: the physical and psychological barriers that separate Bertie from fluent speech, and the class barriers that separate the blue-blooded aristocrat from the bulbous-nosed colonial. This is where the performers shine. Firth is stiff and imperious, yet vulnerable and needy. Rush is affable and informal, yet strict and demanding. "My castle, my rules," Logue says of his quaintly furnished office. In that castle, then, the visiting and resident kings square off.
There, the mechanics of the therapy are fascinating and often funny. For example, music eases the stammer, as does anger: When cursing up a four-letter storm to the bouncy rhythm of Camptown Races, the royal fellow is positively eloquent. Yet there's also a more subtle theme going on here, connecting not only the main characters but the performers too. It surfaces when the aging George V, whose brutal parenting contributed to Bertie's affliction, points to "the new invention of radio" and prophetically concludes: "The family has been reduced to the lowest of creatures - we've become actors."
Indeed, they have. Logue is himself an aspiring actor, albeit hampered by his rude Aussie accent. Bertie is a reluctant actor, an understudy poised to inherit the starring role in a gilded pageant. And, of course, Firth is an actual actor, obliged in this outing to constrict his usual mellifluence to fit the stammering part. Apparently, all the world is truly a stage.
If so, it's the subplot that intrigues here. Meanwhile, outside the office sessions, history's main plots are heating up - brother David, Mrs. Simpson, the accession, the abdication, Hitler's menace, Churchill's rise - but director Tom Hooper is less adept at sketching in the big picture. Although Britain's own acting royalty (including Michael Gambon, Timothy Spall, Derek Jacobi) pop up to flesh out the famous faces, their cameos do little more than flirt with caricature. Helena Bonham Carter hardly fares better as Bertie's sweet and devoted wife - sainthood doesn't become her. Worse, beyond the therapy sequences, the intense focus on speech sometimes gives way to bloated cases of speechifying, to windy stuff like, "We will need a king behind whom we can all stand united."
Be patient, though, because the climax sees a nice fusion of the majestic and the intimate, the big stage and the small. War is declared and, before another microphone, placed in a tiny anteroom away from the studio technicians, Bertie speaks flawlessly to his new friend while an entire nation listens. In that "grave hour," a king continues the ceaseless battle with his inner demons, and the world soon follows suit.
The King's Speech
- Directed by Tom Hooper
- Written by David Seidler
- Starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter
- Classification: PG