If “The King’s Speech” isn’t the year’s best film, it’s floating up there in the top 10, somewhere in the top five. It may even be the best.
Traditional without being conservative, linear without being predictable, “The King’s Speech” retells a historical chapter that remains largely unknown. In the process, it acutely observes the isolation of royalty in a way that no other film in recent memory has, with the possible exception of “The Queen.”
Written by David Seidler and directed by Tom Hooper (“The Damned United,” “John Adams”), “The King’s Speech” works so well because of the nuance and beautifully calibrated performances of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in the central roles. They play a symbiotic pair whose relationship gives each something he hadn’t expected, even as they develop a greater understanding of their own fears and weaknesses.
But this story – about how an unorthodox (and largely self-taught) Australian speech therapist helped the future King George VI of England (known to his family as Bertie) overcome a debilitating stammer – is about more than recreating history. It also examines the curious dynamic tension between the rulers and the ruled and what happens when that construct is dropped, if only for a little while and in private.
Royalty, it seems, doesn’t suit Bertie (Firth). He’s spent his life suffering the pressure of his father, King George V (Michael Gambon), to get his stammer under control: “Relax!” the old man shouts at him, while trying to give him a lesson in addressing the radio microphone. His brothers mocked him for his impediment – yet he was the one who had a strong naval career and who seems most conscious of his responsibility as a royal.
But with his father aging, Bertie is required to make more public appearances and speak to audiences, something that terrifies him because of the anticipation of humiliation. His wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), finally seeks out Logue, after numerous other therapists have failed.
Bertie is resistant – and Logue is something of an eccentric character. He insists on seeing Bertie everyday and further insists that, when they are in Logue’s studio, they are equals and must call each other by their first names, a shocking breach of protocol. Yet his impertinence goads Bertie – and his methods begin to pay off.
In fact, Logue is trying to get Bertie to loosen up enough to break free of the mental shackles – imposed by his father and his family from earliest childhood – that form the basis of his problem. Logue’s point is that Bertie has never been allowed to speak in his own voice – figuratively or literally – and this is the key obstacle for him to overcome.
So “The King’s Speech” becomes less about a handicap than about one man helping another learn to discover his own strengths and stop dwelling on his weaknesses. Yet it also is about Logue learning the limits of his ability to work miracles – and his tendency to overstep in his effort to shock his patient into results.
Seidler’s script offers many other pleasures as well. It peeks at the way both sides live in pre-World War II England. It also demythifies – deromanticizes – the affair between King Edward and Wallis Simpson, which led to the abdication that put Bertie on the throne. And it finds humor in that surprising moment when a commoner finds him or herself suddenly confronted with someone who needs to be addressed as “Your Majesty” – not an everyday occurrence.
But it is also about the pleasures of acting that is as good as in any movie this year – perhaps better. Firth and Rush are equals, beautifully matched. And while Firth has the more technically demanding – and richer – character, Rush has the tougher job.
Firth is perfect here, his eyes almost bleeding with the terror he feels at any moment of potential embarrassment. As he waits to speak to a crowd, Firth perfectly captures the look of a man facing the gallows or otherwise feeling doomed. Yet he also finds Bertie’s temper and his spine, his compassion and his seriousness. And he has the stammer down expertly so that it feels like an organic and unwanted intrusion every time he speaks.
Yet Rush has the more difficult role and handles it expertly. He delivers Logue’s sly one-liners with expert timing and just the right bite. But Logue must spend more of the film simply reacting and thinking, calculating and calibrating. It’s a study in the ability to listen and be interesting at the same time.
Bonham Carter makes this a triangle – a sounding board and support for her husband, a brake on Logue’s excesses, always without raising her voice or anything more than an eyebrow, really. It is a controlled and effective performance, creating a character who both lives within and feels constricted by the demands of having married into royalty.
Restraint, in fact, is what makes “The King’s Speech” so moving. Here is a film about people who rarely get to express their feelings (not that they get to have emotional outbursts here). Yet they convey both the sense of repressed feeling and, ultimately, the sense of freedom and release portrayed by the relationships in this film.
Which means that “The King’s Speech” will make you laugh more than you imagine – and touch you more deeply than you expect.