Tom Hooper—whose 2009 film The Damned United went criminally unseen—returns this year with a film likely to be seen by a very large portion of the moviegoing public. The King’s Speech—destined to be a Best Picture contender at the Oscars and likely to snag that Best Actor Oscar for Colin Firth—is as close to a perfect entertainment as you’re likely to get. The combination of Hooper’s direction, veteran TV writer David Seidler’s screenplay and the most illustrious and oh-so-right cast imaginable is simply an unbeatable blend. Few films so deftly walk the line between art film and crowd-pleaser as this one.
The fact-based story is all about the stammer of Britain’s King George VI (Firth), who was placed on the throne when King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) abdicated in order to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson (TV and stage actress Eve Best). While it’s common knowledge that George VI stuttered badly, the story of the efforts of controversial speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to help him—and the King’s odd-couple friendship with Logue—has been largely unknown until now. Screenwriter Seidler (himself having overcome a stammer)—who had access to Logue’s notes—had long wanted to tell the story, but waited till the Queen Mother died to do so.
The central drama of the film concerns George VI giving his first wartime speech over the radio. Now, none of this may sound like the most interesting story in the world, but don’t be fooled. As presented in the film, this is a warm and compelling drama filled with humanity and the happy knack for being moving and funny at the same time. The main characters—George VI, Logue and Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter)—are well-rounded and feel essentially real. Fortunately, the cast is more than equal to the task at hand. And while Firth and Rush deserve all the accolades they’ve received—and will yet receive—Bonham Carter ought not be overlooked. Since she has the role of the one character most of us remember, hers may be the trickiest role. It takes very little screen time to fully believe she could age into the Queen Mother we came to know.
The film opens with George VI—then Duke of York—disastrously attempting to deliver a radio speech at Wembley in 1925, establishing his problem and the conflict it sets up between himself and his father, George V (Michael Gambon). The story then jumps to the 1930s and Queen Elizabeth’s—then Duchess of York—somewhat desperate attempt to find a speech therapist who can actually help her husband. Official efforts have failed—one “expert” nearly chokes George by making him try to talk with a mouthful of marbles. “It cured Demosthenes,” he assures them. “That was in ancient Greece. Has it worked on anyone since?” inquires Elizabeth.
This leads her to the controversial (“not my favorite word”) Australian Logue, whose methods—learned in the field with shell-shocked soldiers, as it turns out—are an unorthodox blend of psychiatry and unusual techniques. His insistence on being on equal footing prove troublesome—he calls the future king “Bertie” and wants to be called “Lionel” in kind—and his attempts to probe the root of the problem psychologically are resisted. However, he achieves results no one else has and George winds up—against his will—becoming friends with the man.
The film is a beautiful mixture of fact, supposition, historical name-dropping, reverence and irreverence (in about equal measure), and probably a degree of outright fantasy. But what matters is that it works. The climactic speech—beautifully underscored with the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7—turns out to be a scene of intensely emotional drama, no matter how corny that may sound. As entertainment and as one of the warmest and most human films, this is the essential Christmas movie. Movie-wise, you’re not going to get a better present this season. And though the film is R rated—Logue’s method includes swearing—bear in mind that it’s solely on the basis of language. Rated R for some language.