The King's Speech
Directed by Tom Hooper. Starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Jennifer Ehle, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, Eve Best, Timothy Spall. (2010, R, 118 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 24, 2010
We were colonists once, subjects of a crown, finding our inarticulate way in a strange land with too many native tongues, none of which we spoke, most of which we feared. Eventually, we became fluent with the assistance of steel and cordite – tools as baffling and treacherous in the long run as ignorance was in the short. Language, or the lack thereof, is as much a key to what we now call civilization as its absence was generations ago. Speech, whether it takes the form of eloquent diplomacy, familial comfort, or prewar leadership, is ostensibly the stiff upper lip of The King's Speech. It's a "keep calm, carry on" wartime melodrama of the first order, and stiff though it may be, it is never less than brilliantly done. This is no simple elocutionary lesson. It is, instead, a peerless period drama featuring a stammering, unsure, and borderline ordinary (as ordinary as a duke can be) man forced into greatness by history. This may be musty and faded history to us Yanks, but in 1936, Prince Albert, the Duke of York (Firth, brilliantly human), was forced to become King George VI when his brother, King Edward VIII (Pearce), scandalously abdicated the throne for the love of an American divorcée. Bad enough for any man, yes, but this royal disaster was followed by Germany's invasion of Poland and the first deadly gambits in "Mr. Hitler's" war. Worse still, the new king is a stutterer, unable to master Marconi's world-changing wireless radio. (And you thought Prince Charles had a rough time of it.) What elevates The King's Speech above the few peers it has (Stephen Frears' The Queen comes to mind) is Firth's intensely honest portrayal of "Bertie," a deeply flawed but finally heroic fellow who just happens to be thrust into history. His savior arrives, incongruously, in the form of Rush's dottily genius speech therapist, Lionel Logue. Logue's radical methods and much-maligned Australian background counter Bertie's self-doubt in ways that seem obvious at first, but take on new weight as war looms. This is a knowing, sincere, and beautifully shot film that, unlike Frears' Queen, takes on the meatiest slabs of dark history and renders these curtsy-courting Balmoralians as something other than figureheads. Can you imagine a time when the British Empire – and by extension, everything – was in peril, and the entire future of humanity rested on one slipshod and timorous tongue? It happened in a flash that went on to last six grueling years, but The King's Speech brings a country's amorphous fear of war and a sudden king's dread of his hesitant supremacy into perfect, uncommon focus.