“The King’s Speech” looks like your mom’s favorite movie of the year, doesn’t it? A heartwarming, inspirational story, handsome period production design, a cutesy and weirdly photoshopped poster, not to mention a starring role for DILF supreme Colin Firth. Despite its mom movie credentials, this film somehow rises above its station to become more than just another in a long line of bland prestige pictures about royalty. With impeccable craft, a smart script, and two actors working at the top of their game, it’s the rare crowd-pleaser whose pleasures are more than base appeals to sentimentality. It’s hard to imagine a much better film being made from this material.
That material is the story of Albert, the Duke of York (Firth) — Bertie to his friends — and his struggle to overcome a lifelong speech impediment. As second in line to the throne Bertie really only has one responsibility, but it’s the worst responsibility imaginable for a stutterer: talking in public. An endless parade of doctors and failed cures eventually lead Bertie and his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) to the doorstep of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Rush). Logue’s techniques are unorthodox and controversial, two words, Bertie notes, that aren’t exactly popular amongst the British royal family. Not surprisingly, the pair hit it off like oil and napalm, as Logue sifts through the Duke’s ample emotional baggage searching for the root of his problem and Bertie resists his nosy speech therapist’s attempts to act like his psychotherapist.
Firth and Rush are brilliant together. Neither has an easy role. Firth has to make us sympathize with a guy who is rich, powerful, and never had to work a day in his life. The “heavy is the head that wears the crown” routine is an old one, but something about Firth’s performance feels fresh: his Bertie is far more human than his collection of sad royal stereotypes would imply. Firth’s incredibly convincing with the stuttering, too. Even when Bertie does improve, we still see Firth struggling against himself every step of the way. When he’s not stuttering, even his face is glacially calm, Firth manages to suggest the torrent of stammering waiting to erupt at any moment. As the straight man and second fiddle, Rush spends most of his time in reaction shots, but he moves emotional mountains with gestures and subtle twitches of that face which is blessedly free of Botoxian meddling.
As part of our podcast this week I watched a lot of movies about royalty, many of them showcases for great actors like “The King’s Speech.” Too many of these kinds of movies are as restrained visually as their subjects are emotionally, made by directors content to coast along on good performances and source material. Thankfully director Tom Hooper is much more willing to experiment. Where most royalty movies are stiff, “The King’s Speech” is nimble. The camera is always leading or following Firth through the hallways of power in a manner (and to an effect) that recalls Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.” Rather than dramatizing the enormity of the conflict with high angles and wide-shots, Hooper keeps the camera pinned to Firth, emphasizing the flawed, nervous person in the midst of extraordinary circumstances. Hooper also uses a subtle fish eye lens in some crowd scenes, which cleverly enhances the intimidating nature of Bertie’s surroundings by exaggerating their monstrous size. In the therapy sessions, he films Firth and Rush at rigid, perpendicular angles (to reinforce the tension between these men who are often at loggerheads) and often pushes them to the sides of the frame (to suggest Bertie feels disconnected from the world around him).
Screenwriter David Seidler makes a mistake with a needless and cheap third act twist designed to inject some false jeopardy into Bertie and Logue’s relationship. But the rest of his screenplay is filled with tart, tangy dialogue and an empathetic ear for character, and grows both leads into men we truly care for. Even the schmaltzy finale, in which one of the characters receives a veritable curtain call from an entire nation, strikes the right note between restraint and sentimentality. “The King’s Speech” probably will be your mom’s favorite movie of the year. But it’s so damn well-made it could make your top ten list too.