In 1925, King George V (Michael Gambon, the last Dumbledore) asked his second son to give the closing address for the Exhibition of the Empire. For the Duke of York (Colin Firth, "Bridget Jones's Diary," "A Single Man"), he may have well been asked to face a firing squad. As the years went by and it began to become clear that elder brother David's (Guy Pearce, "Animal Kingdom") attachment to American divorcee Wallis Simpson (Eve Best, SHOtime's 'Nurse Jackie') would be an impediment to his rule, especially as Hitler's rise threatened, an unorthodox Australian by the name of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films) was sought out by the Duke's wife to help still the stammer of "The King's Speech."
A film about the speech impediment of a British royal doesn't sound like fodder for the box office or Oscar, but this Toronto Film Festival audience favorite looks bound for both. This is a crowd pleasing film, one which mixes history and scandal with humor and that old chestnut, 'underdog overcoming the odds' inspiration. Director Tom Hooper's (HBO's 'Longford,' "The Damned United") affectionate take on Queen Elizabeth's parents paints a warmer picture than her film, "The Queen."
Having set the precedent for Bertie's tongue twisted agony, Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler ("Tucker: The Man and His Dream") leap ahead to show the man's continuing embarrassment as a doctor advises him that smoking is relaxation for the larynx and coaxes him to read with a mouthful of marbles. The loving and supportive Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, "Henry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 1") decides to look outside the box and books an appointment with Logue under the pseudonym Mrs. Johnson. He's an oddball, living in huge barren rooms on Harley St. with his wife Myrtle (Jennifer Ehle, "Pride and Glory," "The Greatest") and his three sons, whom he entertains with his Richard III impressions. He refuses to make house calls, even after he learns the real identify of his client to be. His singular disregard for royal protocol is at first amusing, later obviously a necessary component of successful treatment.
Bertie, as only family members and now Lionel call him, wants nothing to do with this overly familiar man who asks him to read while listening to loud music on headphones. Later, he plays the record Logue created and is astonished to hear himself completely stammer free. He goes back and sets off on a secret daily venture that is equal parts physical exercise and psychological probing. When the King passes on, David becomes King Edward VIII, but his frivolous rule at a time of great stress frustrates Bertie's greater hold of responsibility. David won't quit Wallis and so abdicates to marry her and his younger brother becomes King George VI as WWII looms.
The title has double meaning as the film works up to its climax of George VI's first wartime speech delivered over the radio, one which rallied a nation. There are small steps in between as an actual friendship develops between the commoner and the king. It's to Firth and particularly Rush's credit that this is so enjoyable to watch, but truth be told, Firth's stammer, which he's aced, is intermingled with a lisp that sounds based on Gilda Radner's Baba Wawa character. There is also a rift between the two men which feels a bit forced given all that's come before (Logue tells his client he'd be a better king than his brother which Bertie deems traitorous, going all 'do you know who I am?' on him.) Firth is terrific, however, shown in juxtaposition between the family man he enjoys being and the monarch who watches sadly as his own daughters curtsy. Rush is delightful as the failed theatrical actor from Perth. Americans will chortle at his literal disregard for the throne. Bonham Carter is warm with a dose of prickly (largely reserved for Simpson), although it is a bit disconcerting seeing her in discussion with Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall, Bonham-Carter's fellow Deatheater Wormtail) about saving Britain so soon after she's tried to destroy it with him in "The Deathly Hallows." Guy Pearce is genius casting as Edward VIII, both loving and mocking of his brother and a surprising match after makeup. Jennifer Ehle is lovely support as Lionel's astonished and proud wife. That's Claire Bloom ("The Haunting," "Crimes and Misdemeanors") as Bertie's formal mother Queen Mary. Derek Jacobi ("The Golden Compass") plays the Archbishop as a self-satisfied fuss budget.
Technically, the film is rather ordinary. Cinematographer Danny Cohen (HBO's 'Longford,' "Pirate Radio") has a tendency to plunk his subject in the middle of the frame and uses wide angle lenses at times when one might think he's trying to portray fear or alienation and at others where...who knows (his opening shot is pretty much up a man's nose!). Netty Chapman's art direction is quite interesting, Logue's huge office's walls the smear of color that remains beneath removed wallpaper, his home transformed into Art Deco chic after years with the king. Alexandre Desplat's score may be unnoticed due to the heavy usage of Beethoven's Seventh, which, unfortunately, blares over the climax. Costume is most exceptional on Bonham-Carter, who's made to appear a bit heavier and dowdier with time. The film was infamously slapped with an R-rating because of the (humorous) use of swear words as part of Logue's therapy.
"The King's Speech" is an extremely enjoyable film, but it is an outmoded form of communication when compared with David Fincher's superior "The Social Network."
During the 1930s, Great Britain went through a huge scandal when King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) abdicated the throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. His younger brother, Albert, Duke of Windsor, is next in line for the English throne but the idea terrifies him because of a life-long and embarrassing stutter. His wife and future Queen Mother, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter), seeks out an unconventional speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), to help with “The King’s Speech.”
Director Tom Hooper, who brought us the exciting soccer film “The Damned United” in 2009, expands his repertoire with a well-executed, terrifically acted story that brings to life the trials and tribulation of Albert as he moves from noble obscurity to the limelight as the new King of England. The film captures the period look and feel of 30s Britain and gives insight to a bit of English history mostly unknown outside of Britain.
The trio of stars – Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter as the royals and Geoffrey Rush as the irreverent therapist – do a fine job in making the historical figure human beings. Colin Firth is terrific as the stammering prince turned king. Bonham Carter plays Elizabeth as a strong-willed partner who loves her man and wants to help him find peace in his speech. Geoffrey Rush is wonderful, funny, serious and always witty as the speech therapist who eschews all the mistaken beliefs of his so-called colleagues to help the king find his voice.
The script, by David Seidler, is well-honed and the dialogue sparkles with humor and angst. Rush provides intelligent comic relief as he ignores the proprieties of dealing with a monarch and treats King George VI as an equal. “My house, my rules” he tells Albert and even calls him Bertie, much to the royal couple’s chagrin. The montage scenes where Logue puts his unconventional techniques into practice with Albert are laugh out loud funny and never a cliché.
Tom Hooper proves, with “The King’s Speech,” that he has a firm understand of the filmmaking process and elicits award worthy performances from his stars. The behind the camera techs, like cinematography, production design, costume, editing are equal in quality to the actors’ performances. I give it an A-.
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