Colin Firth, hot off his Academy Award-nominated turn last year in A Single Man, returns to period work as King George VI, the father of currently reigning Queen Elizabeth. Bertie, as he was known among the royal family, was the stammering second son of George V (Michael Gambon) and brother of King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), who abdicated the throne in order to marry his twice-divorced lover. Bertie was a naval officer, a good son, husband and father and quite content to exist on the margins, far away from the spotlight and the monstrous microphones of the age.
It's curious to watch the film and acknowledge that the late-1930s might have truly been the dawn of the post-Industrial media age. So often, from a historic perspective, the touchstones come later, during the 1960s with the impact of television (the Kennedy-Nixon debate or coverage of the lunar landing) but, before those images, powerful voices reached out across the divide. George V was well-known for his Christmas address to the nation, which, as mentioned here, recalls The State of the Union.
All of which drives Bertie to do all he can to stave off having to take over this monumental task. His wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), the future Queen Mother, recognizes the inevitability of the situation and arranges for him to begin sessions with an unaccredited Australian voice teacher named Lionel Logue (Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush), who works out of his home. At first, Logue doesn’t know the identity of his new client, but when he finds himself face-to-face with the prince Logue displays a surprising degree of moxie, daring to address the royal figure as just another common man in need of service, kicking off the typical jousting between the two that results in a lifelong friendship.
Firth and Rush sell the relationship, establishing each man and the concentric rings of class barriers that must be lowered for the pair to eventually come together. Fear drives both of them. Bertie desperately wants to prove to be equal to the task before him. He wants to be able to stand and deliver the kinds of stirring speeches that will rival those of his father, the impassioned warmongering Adolf Hitler and his ally Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) as a second world war looms.
Logue, with his unorthodox approaches to therapy, has much to lose as well. A failed actor with a family to provide for during difficult times, he knows that Bertie is his best shot at proving that his techniques can work. For him, it's about the personalizing the methods, building confidence and experience and helping his patients find their voices; thus failure means letting an individual down.
The public and personal arenas merge in Tom Hooper’s film, thanks to the dynamic between Firth and Rush, but the director also blends his experiences helming stories for film and television (the big versus the small screen). Much of his acclaim stems from his run of success at the Golden Globes where he has won for best movie or mini-series made for television three years in a row (John Adams, Longford and Elizabeth I), along with his actors and actresses snagging prizes for their performances during that streak.
Hooper seems drawn to historic narratives — even his most recent feature prior to Speech, The Damned United, was an account of legendary English football manager Brian Clough — but each project hinges on what takes place beyond the spotlight for these figures, what private fears shaped their public personas.
And he works with stellar talent (Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, Jim Broadbent, Samantha Morton, Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons in front of the camera and writers like Peter Morgan and Speech scribe David Seidler behind the scenes) to present these voices as authentically as possible.
Intriguingly, for the truly discerning viewer, The King’s Speech comes across as a highly manipulative shell game. We get the juxtaposition of Firth’s strong, handsome face and our expectations of his usual effortless charm, which slam headlong into his wide-eyed horror whenever he has to open his mouth and wait for the halting words to emerge. But the focus is not on the approach to remedy the stammer; it's all about the journey to a set-up, the predetermined big moment, where in typical underdog fashion we watch as Bertie stands toe-to-toe with Logue delivering his first wartime address to the nation, and Hooper shows us the expectant faces of his family, the government and the British peoples scattered around the world listening, transfixed, as Alexandre Desplat’s music accents the necessary beats.
We get the triumph, frankly, without much of the real struggle, but Hooper and his actors do their best to make sure we don’t care about anything other than what they give us. This is not the story of how Bertie overcomes his stammer. The King’s Speech addresses the bond between a king and a most uncommon man, and it will make you want to stand and cheer. Grade: A-
Opens Dec. 24. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.