28 January 2011

The King's Speech

Colin Firth, left, and Helena Bonham Carter are shown in a scene from "The King's Speech."
"The King's Speech" tells the story of a monarch left virtually impotent by democracy and, even more so, his own insecurities.

"If I am king, where is my power?" asks King George VI of Britain (Colin Firth). "Can I declare war? Form a government? Levy a tax? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority because (the people) think that when I speak, I speak for them. But I can't speak, because I have no voice."

When we meet the king in 1925, he is Prince Albert, "Bertie" to those close to him, the Duke of York, and he is about to speak at the closing of the 1925 Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium. What comes out, though, hardly could be called a speech, plagued as it is by Bertie's uncontrollable stammer.

With the advent of radio and his role in the public eye—or ear, more accurately—growing, Bertie seeks out a variety of speech therapists in an effort to overcome his lifelong impediment. None of it works, though, until Bertie's wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, reminding us she is capable of playing so much more than eccentrics), happens across the unconventional Australian Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a struggling actor-turned-therapist.

Logue insists on calling his new patient "Bertie," something no commoner has done before, and believes that, in addition to coaching him on muscle relaxation and breathing, he must find the psychological roots of the stammer. After initial resistance, therapist and patient, common man and nobleman become friends and confidants.

While this is happening, two major events occur. First, King George V (Michael Gambon) dies and Bertie's older brother, Edward (Guy Pearce), inherits the throne. Second, Edward falls in love with Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), a twice-divorced American. The king cannot marry a divorced woman under English law, so Edward abdicates the throne, elevating Bertie, now known as King George VI, to a position he never wanted and never dreamed of having.

Earlier this week, "The King's Speech" picked up a leading 12 Oscar nominations, including best picture, director (Tom Hooper), screenplay (David Seidler), actor (Firth), supporting actor (Rush) and supporting actress (Bonham Carter). It is the kind of classically produced film that seems tailor-made for such recognition, but to say that feels like a disservice to the extraordinary work done by all involved.

Here is a movie that consists entirely of dialogue and presents no real villain to speak of. (You could make a case for George V, Edward and other figures from Bertie's childhood as villains but not in a conventional sense; their antagonism occurred off-screen, long before the events of the film.) But instead of feeling stodgy and stiff, the movie inspires and it humanizes the Royal Family with warmth and humor.

Firth is simply magnificent, not just because he nails the stammer, but because he portrays a man who becomes a king instead of just a monarch who stutters. Rush's role draws less attention to itself but is equally important, providing steady support (and most of the comic relief), an anchor for Firth's showier performance. The bond that forms between Bertie and Logue and the chemistry of Firth and Rush gives the film its heart, making it almost a buddy movie of sorts.

It is not just the acting that distinguishes "The King's Speech." The editing, music, art design, costumes—it's all virtually flawless. "The King's Speech is an exquisite, delightful film.

Greg's Grade: A

(Rated R for some language. 118 minutes.)

NOTE: "The King's Speech" is rated R because of one scene in which Bertie shouts a string of expletives as part of his therapy. This movie is appropriate for most teenagers.

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