Royal treatment … (from left) Helena Bonham Carter, Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush (Photo courtesy The Weinstein Co.)
THE KING’S SPEECH
2010, The Weinstein Company, R, 118 min.
By William Wiggins
When it comes to period dramas, it seems most plots hinge on epic turns in history as experienced by larger than life central characters. Who would have thought that one about a withdrawn, shy royal with a stammer could resonate so soundly? But it’s that not-so-subtle flaw that makes “The King’s Speech” so b-b-bloody b-b-brilliant. The film is a riveting account of Britain’s King George VI, his impromptu ascension to the throne, and the speech therapist who helped the unsure monarch deliver one of the most important speeches of the 20th (or any other) century.
Living in the rather formidable shadow of his father King George V (Michael Gambon), his son George (Colin Firth) doesn’t have to worry about becoming king. In line ahead of him is Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), the heir apparent. George the elder embraced the new intrusion of radio on the monarchy, but George the junior wants nothing to do with it, in love with his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), and his two daughters. Still, his wife is determined to fix his nagging speech impediment, which hinders him in public speaking engagements.
Royal therapists and other quacks haven’t worked, and she finally steps out of her safety zone and solicits the help of an unconventional Australian, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
Meanwhile, as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis begin their rise to power in Europe, the death of their father puts Edward on the throne and moves George one step closer to it. Adding to George’s nervousness is the glaringly apparent fact that Edward isn’t so much interested in being king as he is chasing the affections of American socialite Wallis Simpson, whom he would be unable to marry as King due to her prior divorce.
Logue, meanwhile, proves himself equal parts speech therapist and psychiatrist, a friend to George (whom he insists on calling by his private nickname of “Bertie”) such as the monarch never had. Logue’s unorthodox methods get underneath George’s stammering, baring suppressed memories from childhood, growing up in the shadow of an elder brother, perpetual negative reinforcement from a domineering father, etc. It’s an unfettered, uncensored look behind the scenes of a well-known royal family, a glimpse into the lives of very private, yet prominent people at a rare level of intimacy, not unlike the type of story that made “The Queen” great just a couple of years ago.
Nowhere are the character contrasts better delineated than between George and his brother, Edward, a classic clash between duty and hedonism, fulfilling one’s personal quest for happiness versus overcoming one’s worst fears in the service of your people and country. As perfect as he delivers his now infamous abdication address, it’s Edward’s imperfections that point out the need for George to conquer his own if he’s to lead England in what is inevitably to be war with Germany.
But the true voice of the movie is the relationship between “Bertie” and Lionel, who forge an often volatile, but brutally honest relationship in the fire of a world on the brink of war. And both actors are more than up to the task. Firth is brilliant as the aloof, initially reluctant and distrustful monarch, while Rush effectively uses his knack for ironic humor to actually relish in the sheer inequality of their positions, all the while knowing full well the extent to which George depends on his success.
So is the rest of the core cast, which benefits from numerous excellent performances, not the least of which are Gambon’s big and regal George V, but also Pearce’s lionized, yet hopelessly spoiled Edward, and Bonham Carter’s haughty, practical, tough-loving Elizabeth.
The score by Alexandre Desplat is worthy of knighthood all by itself. Screenwriter David Seidler’s script is tight, and his witty banter is wonderfully balanced against some very intense monologues. Director Tom Hooper (“Prime Suspect,” “John Adams”), whose TV background affords a maximum amount of story, brings a concise cadence to the film, and smartly spends his budget on production design and costumes where he’ll get the most bang for the buck.
Watch for this one at Oscar time … Colin Firth won the Golden Globe for Best Actor (Drama) and this past weekend “The King’s Speech” won the Producers Guild’s coveted Best Picture award, which statistically has been a good indicator of what will win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Heavy may be the head that wears the crown, but for Best Picture this year, this loyal subject says all hail “The King’s Speech!”
(The “R” rating was given for adult language. “The King’s Speech” is now playing at Minaret Cinema in Mammoth Lakes. Visit www.mammothlakesmovies.com or call the box office at 760.934.3131 for show times and other information.)