Film Review: The King's Speech

Altogether satisfying, compelling true story of King George VI’s speech impediment and the unconventional therapist who treated him. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush give two of 2010’s outstanding performances.

The King’s Speech is a textbook Oscar Best Picture contender: a fascinating but largely unknown true story set within the private realm of the British royal family; a droll and spirited comedy of clashing cultures; an inspirational drama of overcoming a handicap; and a movie with art-house credentials that’s also a genuine crowd-pleaser. With this captivating feature, Tom Hooper makes the leap from ambitious HBO projects like Elizabeth I and the “John Adams” miniseries to major feature-film director, guiding award-caliber performances from Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and an impressive supporting cast.

The success of The King’s Speech begins with the intriguing historical record. Who knew that England’s Prince Albert (Bertie to his family), eventually to take the name King George VI, struggled with a severe speech impediment all his life? David Seidler’s screenplay begins with the cringe-inducing sight of Bertie (Firth) struggling in vain to overcome his stammer for a radio address at the opening of the 1925 British Empire Exhibition.

Doubly mortified by the supremely confident example of his stern father, King George V (Michael Gambon), Bertie tries various forms of speech therapy, all for naught. Then his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) discovers a most unusual expert, a onetime actor from Australia named Lionel Logue (Rush), who insists on working out of his modest, eccentrically decorated home office. As a non-native, Lionel refuses to bend to the usual formalities expected when in the presence of a royal personage; he addresses Bertie by his first name, brings a startling physicality to his sessions, and is downright blunt and irreverent with his very important patient. Much to Bertie’s discomfort, he also plumbs the psychological traumas that may be the root cause of his terrible stutter. Early on, the prince exits in a fury, but a creative exercise involving headphones and a vinyl recording proves that Lionel’s methods actually work.

Bertie’s plight becomes more urgent when his father dies and his older brother Edward’s dalliance with American divorcee Wallis Simpson threatens the stability of the crown. Elevated to king, the newly titled George VI must face the challenge of a radio address to the nation when Britain declares war on Germany in 1939. The now-indispensable Lionel Logue is there at his side for this watershed moment.

That climactic speech is a tour de force for all concerned, a suspenseful, hold-your-breath sequence as gripping as any action movie, as Lionel “conducts” Bertie through the most consequential minutes of his life. It’s also the culmination of two great performances: Firth, who deftly modulates his character’s vocal affliction and reveals the mixture of anger, pride and self-effacing humor of a human being struggling to fulfill an idealized role, and Rush, who brings tremendous wit, élan and compassion to the irresistible Lionel. Bonham Carter is warm and winning as Elizabeth, Guy Pearce makes a dashingly reckless Edward, and Timothy Spall is a surprisingly persuasive Winston Churchill.

Abetted by cinematographer Danny Cohen, production designer Eve Stewart, Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan and editor Tariq Anwar, Hooper has fashioned a sumptuous, crisply paced period film with just the right balance of literacy and directorial flair. This is one royal-family tale any commoner can love.