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

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The script is by David Seidler, whose credits include the 1988 Tucker: The Man and His Dream, and who was himself, he told the L.A. Times, "quite a profound stutterer" as a child. It would be very easy to frame The King's Speech as a simple triumph-over-adversity story, particularly considering that the movie's penultimate moment is the one in which Albert, having recently been crowned George VI, successfully addresses his subjects with deeply troubling news: That England is going to war. But there are so many layers and angles to The King's Speech -- funny ones as well as wrenching ones -- that it would be a mistake to dismiss it, with a pat on the head, as a facile crowd pleaser. When Albert finally gives that terrible, necessary speech, the moment is less about his personal triumph than about the corridor that has suddenly opened between him and the rest of the world. It's not a case of one guy's overcoming his speech problem trumping a burgeoning world crisis; it's a case of a man finally realizing that he has all the tools to fight that crisis. Finally, he's able to reach his people, and it doesn't happen a minute too soon.

And then there's the pleasure of watching so many performers, in roles big and small, pour the best of what they've got into this particular vessel. Timothy Spall is an affable, astute Winston Churchill; Guy Pearce shows up as a sympathetic -- at least at first -- Edward VIII, the man whose abdication of the throne would toss poor Albert right onto it. Bonham Carter makes a believably warm, if proper, Elizabeth, and the movie's costumers (led by Jenny Beavan) have done right by her: She's shown in a series of tilted saucer-shaped hats, the very kind the real-life Elizabeth -- a.k.a. the Queen Mum -- would favor until her death in 2002, at age 101.

Rush, as the roguish Logue, is the good Geoffrey Rush, more akin to the wily actor we saw in Quills than the mannered, overreaching one of Shine. He's stern with his royal patient -- "My house, my rules!" he barks when Albert tries to light up a cigarette in his presence -- but he seems to be motivated mostly by the drive to diminish this man's suffering. When he coaches the king through that crucial radio speech, we see that he's marked the typewritten text with slashes and beats, a roadmap for the jittery king to follow. Rush's whole performance is like that: His character recognizes the value of a businesslike -- though not perfunctory -- act of kindness.

Albert's response to that kindness, as Firth plays it, is understandably awkward. That's because Firth recognizes his character as a man who's both bound by duty and embarrassed by it. The first time we see Firth's Albert step up to a microphone, it's nearly unbearable to watch his face: The stress and anxiety we see there is so vivid, it makes him look both painfully boyish and aged beyond his years. When he comes to Logue's office, he arranges himself uncomfortably on a shabby settee, his shoulders hunching their way toward his ears. And for a serious public appearance in 1936, after his brother's abdication, Albert is forced to don what can only be described as a "King suit," a dress uniform complete with gilt epaulettes at the shoulders and a weighty sword clanging at his side. Firth makes us feel every ounce of the weight he's bearing.

It's always easiest to assess a performance by thinking about an actor's line delivery, but of course, so much of acting (if not most of it) actually happens between the lines. As you can imagine, there's a lot of between-the-lines in The King's Speech: When Albert stammers, a look of angry determination tends to cross his face -- he'll get that word out, or else. But force, not even self-inflicted force, doesn't work. Firth's performance here is both meticulously controlled and miraculously, blissfully open: He shows us infinite gradations of suffering, but we also eventually see his joyful relief, too.

One of the movie's loveliest sequences is something of a filip, a scene in which Albert and Elizabeth spend some time in the nursery with their two young daughters, Margaret and Elizabeth. The little-girl princesses are dressed for bed in their nighties and hair-ribbons. Each of them hugs a patient, panting corgi, and they giggle as their father, dressed in his evening clothes, tells them -- with a notable lack of stuttering -- a cheerfully self-deprecating story about a prince who's been turned into a penguin.

It's a charming little slice-of-life scene. (Cinematographer Danny Cohen is terrific at bringing us into the intimate spaces of these very private people.) It's so charming that we're likely to wonder: Is it realistic?

Do we care if it isn't? We know this is a true story that has been folded, trimmed and wedged into a piece of dramatic fiction. But strict veracity aside, it's such a relief, and a pleasure, to care about people and things we see in a movie. The real strength of The King's Speech is that it allows us to care deeply about those little princesses and their parents in movie terms, rather than in real-life ones. And that's our job when we go to the movies.

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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...