There are Oscar bait roles that work and lord, there are Oscar bait roles that are embarrassingly bad. Playing someone with a handicap has always moved the Academy and usually audiences, but for an actor looking for a challenging part, even the greatest thespians can fall flat on their face. For every Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot” there are a number of unfortunate turns that will easily come to the top of your head (Ben Stiller did a wonderful job mocking them in “Tropic Thunder”). What’s so impressive about Colin Firth’s turn in the new Tom Hooper drama “The King’s Speech” is how a role that could have gone very, very wrong, may arguably be the best performances of his career.
Unbeknownst to most Americans at least, King George VII of England (known as Prince Albert before he took the throne), the father of the current Queen Elizabeth II and the nation’s ruler during WWII, had a major speech impediment. To put it bluntly, he was such a stutterer that as Prince Albert (he changed his name upon assuming the throne), he avoided as many public speeches as possible. And, while much of the British populace knew about his problems, it was kept as historically quiet as possible. Similar to the lack of images or newsreels of a wheelchair stricken President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the same era — you just never saw evidence of the handicap. “The King’s Speech” focuses on how the dramatic events leading up to the abdication of the throne by Albert’s brother, King Edward VII (Guy Pearce) , forced him to use unconventional methods to overcome his stutter. And, how he was able to do so in a major speech at the dawn of the British being forced to enter WWII. How he accomplished this breakthrough was through a remarkable friendship with an Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
The other great performance in “Speech” belongs to Rush, the former Oscar-winner who is, sadly, best known to most moviegoers for his role in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” (not that we aren’t thrilled Captain Barbosa is returning for a fourth go around). But since coming onto the global cinematic scene with “Shine,” Rush has been consistently excellent in films such as “Elizabeth,” “The Quills,” “The Tailor of Panama” and the largely unseen “Swimming Upstream.” For some reason, he just hasn’t reached the stature of some of his British peers in the media (your guess is as good as mine). As Logue, Rush is playing a quirky man ahead of his time who uses counseling techniques to reach the core of Albert’s problems. In many ways, because of Albert’s impediment Rush’s performance is central to keeping the audience engaged to our hero’s pligh. The Aussie is not only charismatic when needed, but makes the audience believe Logue’s intentions are honorable. This isn’t a man trying to latch himself on to the aristocracy, he truly grows into a friend of the future King’s.
As for the third major role in the film, it spawns one of the more unintentionally exciting moments in the film. Set in the first five minutes of the drama, Albert has been charged with delivering a major speech at the closing of a global exhibition in London in 1925. He can barely make it through — which hints at the film’s initial conceit, his stutter – but it’s the actress standing next to him playing his wife that’s so surprising. It’s none other than Helena Bonham Carter. What’s so thrilling about the revelation is that she’s not wearing an ape costume, looks like a crazy witch (or actually playing an evil witch) or yet another Burton-esque character which might find her head three times the size of her body. Clearly, Carter has been captivating in many of her more fantastical roles over the past decade or so, but there’s something exciting about seeing her play a real person again (as real as a royal figure can ever be). And as the mother of the current Queen Elizabeth II (ie, the last Queen Mum who died in 2002 at the age of 101), Carter’s role is key to assuring a beaten down Albert he can rule a nation on the brink of war.
Hopper, who directed last year’s critically acclaimed “The Damned United” and has become an HBO regular with “Longford” and stints on “John Adams” and “Elizabeth I,” does fine work with a story that is confined at times to extended sequences at Logue’s office. Instead, he picks up the pace when necessary and assists Firth in purposely editing Albert’s stutters to the bare minimum. He’s one filmmaker who deserves more accolades for an increasingly impressive resume after this one.
The film’s only flaw, and its a slight one, is the depiction of King Edward VII and Wallis Simpson. Edward is portrayed almost one note as a selfish, willowing and whipped boy to the twice-divorced American socialite. The film take the point of view that their love wasn’t real (at least on Simpson’s part) and that she was overtly disrespectful of the British Empire (although thankfully it has little to do with her Yankee origins). Now, I’m no expert on this part of the Monarchy’s history, but this is a couple that were married for 35 years until Edward’s death. And to many, it was the greatest love story of the 20th Century. There’s got to be some real love in that relationship, don’t you think?
Make no mistake though, overall “The King’s Speech” is one of The Weinstein Company’s strongest awards season contenders in quite some time. Whether it can lock down a best picture nod is unclear, but its absolutely in the race just as “An Education” was a year ago at this time. As for Rush and Firth, it would be shocking if one of them isn’t awarded another Oscar nod. The duo are that good. It’s also worth noting Hooper is assisted by an excellent production design team made up of production designer Eve Stewart and art director Netty Chapman.
“The King’s Speech” opens in limited release on Nov. 26.
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