On its surface, The King’s Speech might seem like it would be a boring, stuffy reject from the Merchant-Ivory collection. Fear not, old chap. It’s a brilliant, hilarious, and a crowd-pleaser that truly pleases the entire crowd.
And, but for one terrifically absurd scene of hilarious f- and s-bombs, it’s not only entertaining, it’s actually wholesome– a story of courage, hope, and perseverance. Plus, there’s the whole ‘history lesson’ bit.
In 1925, the Duke of York (Colin Firth) is giving a speech at the Empire Exhibition. But the Duke (second son of the reigning King George V) has a problem– his whole life he’s been plagued by a pretty vicious stammer that makes him sound like he’s choking on every word he manages to push out of his mouth. In a ‘normal’ person, it would be a major inconvenience, but when you’re part of the royal family and expected to give, oh, the occasional speech, well– it’s a crippling defect.
Doctor after doctor tries to cure the humiliated Duke (or Bertie, as he’s known among family) to no avail. One suggests that he smoke more, one stuffs his mouth full of marbles to help him enunciate. Frustrated and exasperated, he calls a halt to the whole ordeal.
His wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter), though, decides to give it one more shot with local speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). In one of the movie’s many exceptional scenes, she convinces Logue to take the case after letting him know (in hilariously genteel fashion) that she is, in fact, the Duchess of York.
Logue, though, won’t be awed by his patient’s standing, insisting that the Duke receive his treatment in Logue’s modest flat and that Logue be allowed to call the Duke Bertie (and that the Duke call him Lionel). It’s a brilliant move that, as much as can be expected, puts the two men on equal ground.
While the beginnings of what would become World War II swirl around them, the treatment continues. Lionel has Bertie flapping his jowls, rolling around on the floor, and jumping up and down. It’s a masterclass that is at once gut-busting and charming, giving both actors a chance to display their ample talents in a wonderfully understated series of scenes.
As this is all going on, Bertie is also dealing with his older brother Prince Edward (Guy Pearce), who’s first in line for the throne. A bit of a loose cannon, Edward has taken up with American (twice-divorced) socialite Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), a situation that the British upper crust, including the Prime Minister, will have none of. Less than a year after Edward becomes king, he elects to abdicate the throne– with Bertie next in line. War is creeping closer, the stammer is still very noticeable, and all of a sudden, Bertie is thrust even more into the global spotlight. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” indeed.
Director Tom Hooper (the John Adams HBO mini-series) brings a keen eye to the festivities, filming much of the action a little off-kilter or through an exaggerated fish-eye lens. It’s a risky approach, but it actually works, giving us a strong sense of how Bertie himself sees the world– overbearing, expansive, and unforgiving. The screenplay by David Seidler (his first in more than 10 years) is chock-full of dry British wit, but it’s also incredibly suspenseful and downright fascinating.
The perfromances, though, are what truly carry the day. All are first-rate and among the best in the actors’ respective portfolios. Firth is at the top of his game, channeling a stammerer as well as Dustin Hoffman channeled an autism patient in Rain Man. Rush’s matter-of-fact performance is expertly understated while at the same time flat-out hilarious, and Bonham-Carter’s dry-as-sandpaper wit is perfectly charming.
Put it all together, and it’s no wonder the audience broke into applause as the closing credits rolled. (When’s the last time you saw that happen?)