Appropriately, the first thing we see in The King’s Speech is a microphone looming large. Then we slowly note its terrible effect on the man who must approach it: nervous hands shuffling papers; lips frantically repeating the words printed on them; finally, eyes revealing dread and a poignant sort of resignation.
The man is the Duke of York, second in line to the throne of King George V, “Bertie” to his family, a former Naval officer to whom the announcement “You’re live in two minutes, your Royal Highness” sounds more like an invitation to the guillotine than a point of information. You see, Bertie (Colin Firth) is a stammerer, and any perils he faced in Britain’s Great War were far less intimidating to him than giving a radio address.
But this new wireless gadget is a grim inevitability. Used to be, his father grumbles, a king just had to look good in uniform and not fall off his horse. Now, in the progressive1920s and ’30s, monarchs – and their potential successors – must sound eloquent to boost the spirits of their subjects. But though Bertie steps up manfully to that microphone, he’s unable to speak, and the awful sound of radio silence echoes across the land.
Tom Hooper’s terrific, Oscar-worthy film is not merely a spot-on period piece; it’s also a heartfelt study in the shadings of courage, a film about duty and friendship that’s often warmly funny and sometimes painful to watch. Hooper (The Damned United, HBO’s John Adams) gets every detail right in Bertie’s quest to make himself heard. Learning to speak without a stammer is his Agincourt, if you will, and he’s every bit as heroic as his long-ago predecessor Henry V at that seemingly doomed but wondrously successful battle.
Bertie, though, needs a bit of a push in the right direction to win his fight. The treatments prescribed by his regular doctors (which include smoking to “calm the nerves” and inspire “confidence” and reading aloud with a mouthful of hot marbles) aren’t working, and he’s dangerously close to giving up. And so his resourceful wife (a wonderfully amusing Helena Bonham Carter) finds unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Though he’s an Australian – imagine! – Logue comes recommended, and despite his odd methods and far too familiar behavior, the royal couple decide he’s worth a try.
The fascinating, often thorny relationship between the two men is the film’s heart; the prince, isolated by his royal upbringing, really isn’t sure what to do with this commoner who calls himself a friend. Bertie has a quick temper, and the potent blend of frustration, fear and royal arrogance leads to explosive moments between the two.
Then the old king (Michael Gambon) dies, and Bertie’s rakish older brother (Guy Pearce) appears poised to abdicate the throne for the divorced American Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). Bertie is at home in his secondary royal role, and he has strong opinions about international politics, in particular the troubling accession of Adolf Hitler, whose march across Europe indicates that another great war looms. Bertie does not want to be king, but his brother leaves him no choice.
Firth, so mesmerizing in last year’s fine drama A Single Man, goes to no showy heights of acting to register Bertie’s stammer; he simply embodies the abject humiliation Bertie feels trapped in his tongue-tied world. The rest of the cast is stellar, too, especially the implacable, amusing Rush and the arch Bonham Carter. Watch and marvel at her exquisite, understated reaction to a handshake Logue offers before he realizes who she is: She is faultlessly polite, but common folk generally don’t touch future queens. Timothy Spall has a nice turn as Winston Churchill, and, in a fun twist for Firth fans, Jennifer Ehle has a small role as Logue’s wife.
Ehle, you may recall, was Elizabeth Bennet to Firth’s Mr. Darcy in a 1995 BBC production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Playing the most romantic role in English literature was Firth’s first brush with stardom. His superb work in The King’s Speech – one of the year’s best movies – is sure to bring him even more acclaim.
Cast: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Gambon, Guy Pearce.
Director: Tom Hooper.
Screenwriter: David Seidler.
Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Gareth Unwin.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 118 minutes. Some language. Opens Saturday at area theaters.