It’s difficult to explain the allure of the British monarchy. Wherein lies the endless international fascination with royal drama? Are they somehow perceived as different than ordinary people? Or is that they aren’t so different, yet are thrust into prominent positions of power solely by virtue of birth? Are we envious? Bitter? Curious? Just attracted to shiny things?
For me, the socio-cultural fascination of the modern monarchy stems from the way the royal family attempts to balance the sheltered, alienated lifestyle of the über-rich with the duties of leading a nation, all while watching their political relevancy inexorably flow down the drain. “The King’s Speech” gathers together most of these issues in a two-hour nutshell: our hero, initially the Duke of York but destined to become King George VI, a kind father, loyal husband and caring leader, is a stammering mess when it comes to public speaking. The factors that led to his highness’ impediment aren’t necessarily explicitly laid out, but obvious enough: his childhood featured a demanding, cold father, a cruel nurse, a brother struck with epilepsy and promptly isolated like a leper until his tragically young death. Then there’s the elder brother, briefly King Edward VIII, who preferred to abdicate in favor of George rather than give up his affair with a twice-divorced American woman. Edward is worthy of a film of his own; whether he is motivated by true love or a desire to get back at daddy is entirely unclear, but he leaves his brother in the enormously awkward position of being the first king ever whose predecessor was not either dead or dying.
The publicity campaign around “The King’s Speech” would have you believe this film, then, is about George’s struggle to overcome his speech impediment and take up the unexpected mantle of leadership in time to inspire his country on the eve of WWII. But the particular ‘climactic’ event in question is really only a fraction of the issue at stake. “The King’s Speech” is much more a story about friendship, about learning to trust ourselves by first learning to trust others. Yes, there’s all that “finding your voice” stuff in there, but what truly resonates is the implication that it is the personal connections we make in life that make “finding your voice” possible.
The connection we’re specifically talking about here is between George VI and Lionel Logue, the king’s unorthodox speech therapist. An Australian and a failed actor, Lionel is something of a last resort, but the controversial expert is the only person who understands that the king’s physical impediments are really just symptomatic of psychological and emotional trauma. George VI has clearly lived his life in a perpetual state of discomfort, and Lionel sets out to remedy that, starting by eschewing the traditional address of “your highness” in favor of “Bertie.” This would be something like if I were to go up to the Queen and call her “Lizzie.” It simply isn’t done.
And yet, “Bertie” is in dire straights. This is probably his last shot at finding help, and slowly he gives in to Lionel’s methods; both the strange physical exercises (including the hilarious and harmless tirade of profanity that earned the film its R rating), and the therapist’s subtler attempts to get the king to open up about personal matters. As events of grave historical importance swirl around them (Edward’s resignation, the rise of Hitler, etc.), the film stays grounded in the growing friendship between the king and his commoner confidante. The conflation of time in the narrative makes it a little difficult to appreciate how long the process took – something like 10-15 years pass between the beginning and end of the film. But in the end, with Bertie standing in front of that unfeeling, unforgiving microphone, Lionel is with him; and when Lionel says “say it like would to a friend,” we realize this is what the whole journey has been about, that all Bertie needed was to understand what it meant to HAVE a friend in the first place.
Befitting a buddy tale such as this, co-leads Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush probably have the best chemistry of any film duo this year. The theatrical Lionel is chock full of Shakespearean allusions and zippy comebacks, the kind of material Rush can knock out of the park without breaking a sweat. The role of Bertie is certainly more challenging (though by no means more important, hence why I don’t buy the category fraud of Rush as a “Supporting” actor), but Firth has topped himself yet again; after delivering what we thought was perhaps a career-best performance in “A Single Man,” Mr. Darcy here plunges an emotional depth that even that film couldn’t touch, displaying an exceptional mastery of body language and almost imperceptible physical tics to create a wholly convincing portrayal of a man under a brand of emotional stress that perhaps no man on earth can quite understand.
The supporting cast, meanwhile, is effective enough if generally unspectacular. I can’t say I found Helena Bonham Carter’s performance worthy of the accolades it has been receiving; the novelty of Tim Burton’s spouse playing a non-crazy person seems to have gone a long way. Derek Jacobi and Michael Gambon deliver their small parts with the usual British effort, while Timothy Spall completely misses the mark in a distracting caricature of Winston Churchill, in my humble opinion. The only other member of the ensemble worth noting would be Guy Pearce as elder brother Edward, as charismatic as he is enigmatic (again, I ask: how about a spin-off movie about Edward VIII? Someone? C’mon, Ron Howard, I’d even accept your take).
Alexandre Desplat has churned out another charming, atmospheric score, and Danny Cohen’s cinematography has a few more tricks up its sleeve than in most prestige biopics of this type; uncomfortable close-ups and intriguing framing choices merit some attention. In the end, though, it’s all about Firth and Rush, and that is more than enough.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars