REVIEW: Colin Firth Leaves Us Speechless in The King's Speech

Movieline Score:

Now that audiences will finally have a chance to see The King's Speech, they can assess for themselves whether they can "relate" to a movie -- based on a true story -- in which a stuttering monarch works with a speech therapist to overcome his deficiency. That's a question critics, journalist-types and Oscar watchers have been pondering since the movie started gathering buzz in Toronto in September, and plenty of critics have already called the movie middlebrow. While they don't necessarily mean the word as a perjorative, their use of it does give the sense that a movie is something you examine from the safe end of a long stick, and in the case of The King's Speech, yes, by golly, the ordinary folk out there just might take to it.

But to put it plainly, The King's Speech -- directed by Tom Hooper, who made the 2009 football rouser The Damned United -- is a direct and heartfelt piece of work. It's conventional, maybe, in its sense of filmmaking decorum, but extraordinary in the way it cuts to the core of human frustration and feelings of inadequacy, reminding us how universal those feelings are. The picture's fervent mouthpiece for those ideas is Colin Firth -- in what may be the finest performance of the year -- as Albert, the second son of King George V, who would go on to become a reluctant, stammering king.

The King's Speech opens in 1925, as young Albert, Duke of York, is being forced to give a radio address before a crowd at Wembley. His father (whom we meet later, and who's played by a marvelously gruff Michael Gambon) thinks it will be good practice for the nervous young man, but he fails disastrously. The few truncated syllables he manages to squeeze out hang in the air with a tinny echo. The expression on his face is one of absolute misery and horror. His wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) looks on with pained sympathy, trying, it seems, not to express the worst thing a woman can feel for a man: pity.

Doctors treat Albert with all sorts of aggressive quackery -- "Cigarette smoking calms the nerves and gives you confidence!" says one with jaunty authority -- but nothing works, and he retreats from the public eye as much as possible. The exasperated King lectures him firmly but not cruelly, using his own 1934 Christmas address as an example of how good old public speaking ought to be done: "Easy when you know how," he says, as if trying to impress upon his terrified son that it really is no big deal.

Elizabeth takes matters into her own elegantly gloved hands and pays a discreet call on one Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a tweedy, jocular speech therapist whom she believes may be able to help her husband. She doesn't, at first, reveal herself as a royal, and Logue suggests, to her horror, that she bring her "hubby" around. Albert does meet with Logue, but only grudgingly -- and even then, he resists Logue's good-common-sense ideas for treatment and bristles at the man's familiarity. When Logue attempts to call him "Bertie," his eyes suddenly come ablaze: "Only my family uses that," he retorts sharply, though he seems to be protecting his private self rather than rebuking a commoner for his bad manners.

Then again, even when he finally begins accepting Logue's help, he never lets his "doctor" (as it turns out, Logue's credentials are something of a question mark) forget the difference in their stations. The prickliness of their friendship, marked both by Logue's desire to help and Albert's resistance in accepting that help, gives the movie its emotional texture, and the men's push-me-pull-you exchanges help give the movie its shape.

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  • jason says:

    I have been enjoying your reviews for years. you are the most brilliant and articulate movie reviewer I have ever had the pleasure of reading. But how did you get hornswoggled into moving to movieline? just reading your reviews in between ads for everything under the sun is just visually painful! please get movieline to give at least your wonderful reviews some visual integrity. it's like having a filet mignon served on a garbage can!

  • ssa says:

    Great review. We saw the film at the Mill Valley, CA festival and loved it. It's been disconcerting to see some critics and bloggers dismiss it as a lightweight film that belongs on the BBC. I think it has truth and depth, as well as wit and humor, and I only wish there were more films with these qualities on the big screen.

  • Donald says:

    Though I agree that Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are very good, I was very unimpressed by this film. It's boring - not because of its subject matter, but primarily because the director shoots it in the flattest way.
    Yes, I realize it's not a Michael Bay film. But still, so much of the framing, most often during the king-to-be's sessions with Logue, have Firth's face an awkward blob in foreground against a bare, ugly wall. Yes, I get it, that's intentional, telling us how his character is the focus of attention but out of place - but it becomes a fall-to position. The same visual clumsiness and laziness is in evidence with the Steadicam shot of a pivotal argument between the two men - it's like a high-class, gussied up hand held shot that just seems thrown off, however good the acting.
    I'd also add that for the climactic scene in which King George addresses the nation as Britain enters the war the filmmakers stomp all over it with stirring, grave music (Beethoven's 7th Symphony, no less!) so the audience REALLY gets it.
    Stephanie's correct in highlighting the performances, but other than that this is a pretty poor film...