Every now and then, there’s a film that builds a head of critical steam, typically right after a film festival, and no matter how much people try to explain the movie to me or how hard they sell it, the thing just feels like homework. When I was at Toronto this year, there was a choice on the first morning of the festival between two press screenings. One was “Black Swan,” and the other was “The King’s Speech,” and I chose “Black Swan.” No hesitation. And as soon as the screenings were over, the buzz on both films began, and it’s been building ever since. And after each earnest recommendation, I would smile and think, “I’m sure I’ll get to it,” but without any real passion or energy. It just felt like a chore based on the descriptions.
Now that I’ve caught up with the film, I feel silly for resisting it as long as I did. Tom Hooper’s done some really solid work in the past. I thought “John Adams” was an impressive piece of period drama and “The Damned United” is a really solid movie that never quite tipped over into great for me. With “The King’s Speech,” Hooper takes a big step forward, crafting a canny tale of a friendship based on need, one that happened across class and national boundaries, and one that changed the course of England’s fate in WWII. Although King George VI has been portrayed in various films and television shows over the years, this is the first time the story of his private struggle with a speech impediment has been the focus of a film, and while that doesn’t immediately sound like the most compelling story to tell, the screenplay by David Seidler is very canny in terms of what details it uses to tell the story, and it gives some great material to Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, who both respond with some of the best work of their careers.
Colin Firth has been getting better and better these last few years, with his work becoming richer, more nuanced. Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George (Firth), also known as the Duke of York, was the second in line for the throne, and he spent his life counting on the fact that his older brother Edward (Guy Pearce) would be the King when their father King George V (Michael Gambon) finally died. If you know your English history, you know the big broad strokes of what happened, but “The King’s Speech” takes all of that history and makes it human and urgent and personal. One of the things that King George V demands of his sons is that they become comfortable with public speaking, seeing it as an important part of their evolution in the modern age. Since the Duke of York had been struck with a crippling stammer since childhood, the prospect of public speaking was a terrifying one for him, and the film’s opening does a great job of putting the audience in his shoes during a national radio address. It captures the horror of public speaking beautifully, and sets the stakes for just how bad things can get. “Bertie,” as his family calls him, is convinced nothing will ever help him, and his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) is just as convinced that she’s going to find him that help.
That’s when Lionel Logue (Rush) enters the picture, and most of the movie is devoted to the relationship between Lionel and Bertie, and the way they dig into the roots of Bertie’s problem. Using the oncoming freight train of WWII as a ticking clock and playing off the public’s knowledge of Edward’s abdication of the throne, the film is structured like a suspense piece, with the fate of the free world essentially resting on the successful delivery of an international radio address by the newly-crowned King. There is real fury and pain in Firth’s performance, and Hooper continually makes the film subjective, putting us in Bertie’s place. It’s disquieting, and it makes the stammer feel as oppressive to the viewer as it must to the sufferer. There is a good deal of character humor used to define the relationship between the two men, and Firth and Rush both know how to sell a line so that it cuts both ways, earning a laugh but also leaving a bruise.
Handsomely produced, “The King’s Speech” is a grown-up confection, a film that is first and foremost an entertainment, but one that reaches a little deeper, that treats the audience with respect. It is a witty film, and a quietly moving film. Hooper avoids any number of opportunities to ladle on the schmaltz, preferring to the let the power of the film build naturally, simply, to a final release that feels earned instead of obligatory. I’m not the guy you ask about a film’s Oscar chances, and that honestly doesn’t matter to me. What “The King’s Speech” represents is a smart and memorable character piece with real historical significance, and it’s a pleasure to watch. The buzz is sincere, and the film delivers, and what more could you ask than that?
“The King’s Speech” opens in limited release this Friday.