Mark Reviews Movies


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tom Hooper

Cast: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall, Derek Jacobi, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Gambon

MPAA Rating: R (for some language)

Running Time: 1:58

Release Date: 11/26/10 (limited); 12/10/10 (wider); 12/17/10 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 16, 2010

The King's Speech remains a personal story. No matter what political controversies or world affairs may be arise, the film does not waver from how Prince Albert (Colin Firth), Duke of York and later King George VI of the United Kingdom, despised the attention of royalty but maintained his obligation because it had been battered into him from childhood. There was always a means of escape, and his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) proved that by abdicating the throne less than a year into his reign as monarch for the love of a woman—an American, of all the nerve.

Something in Albert, though, however instilled into him, would never take that route. There is an admirable strength of character in bearing the weight of an unwanted crown amidst rumors of displeasure from the people and the threat of world war looming on the visible horizon.

Those are the least of the film's concerns until near the end, because the remarkable facet of George VI in the role of an increasingly figurehead position is that he had a crippling stammer that left him useless in public speaking engagements. Tom Hooper's film opens with one for the closing ceremony of a 1925 exposition at Wembley Stadium in front of a packed crowd and an unseen audience over the radio, which allows the court's subjects to hear the calming authority of royal voices in their homes.

It would be impossible to determine how many of those listeners turned off Albert's speech, but guessing from the uncomfortable looks on the crowd in attendance as he stutters and stops just trying to spit out the greeting, the embarrassment of the occasion could not be tolerable for too long. Out of the shame of that moment rises a rich comedy of class reconciliation, the humanity of regality, and the healing power of vocal exercises.

After such prescriptions as smoking and a mouthful of marbles fail, Albert's wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) seeks out the help of the unconventionally trained (A lover of Shakespeare and occasional performer in local theater, although at an audition, the director praises his enunciation as Richard III—comically punctuating the puns of the opening soliloquy—and little else), Australian-born speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). After he fails to recognize the Duchess of York, he only mildly shifts his informal tone and hold to his rigid terms when she reveals her identity.

Albert doubts success and does not appreciate Logue's assertion of staying on familiar terms, calling the future king "Bertie" and insisting he call his new instructor Lionel, which he never does. Lionel bets Albert a shilling that he can make the Duke speak perfectly, so he straps headphones blasting loud music to Albert's head and makes him recite the most famous piece from Hamlet into a recording phonograph.

Convinced he failed, Albert leaves and only listens to the record of his attempt after his father George V (Michael Gambon) expresses doubts about his eldest son Edward's ability to rule, what with his running around with an American divorcée and his confidence that that Hitler bloke in Germany will sort out the rest of Europe's problems. Feeling the pressure, Albert takes up private classes with Lionel.

In coaching, Albert practices tongue twisters, strength his diaphragm by lifting Her Royal Highness his wife on his stomach, and learns physical tricks to relax his body in the middle of speaking. We watch him improve, presiding over the opening of a factory intercut with those lessons in Lionel's dilapidated office, where the wallpaper peels and the neighbors are frustrated by clients yelling vowel sounds out the window.

Lionel knows the stammer didn't appear out from nowhere and tries to delve into Albert's past. Albert, though, in spite of his frustration with the life of a royal, still holds his stature close to him, and Lionel's tricks become less about the technical art of speaking and more about breaking down the walls of repression Albert has put up, coercing him to sing a song about his troublesome brother when the words simply won't come.

Firth uses the stutter, not as an affectation, but in restrained ways to highlight when he reaches a topic of difficulty about which to talk. He can get through a bedtime story to his two daughters (including the future Queen Elizabeth) without any critical impediment, and when Lionel finally drops his own—quite leaky—wall of propriety and states flat-out that Albert not only has the capability to be king but should seriously consider the possibility that it might come no matter what Albert's own opinion of himself may be, there's little mistaking the words that come from the furious eruption.

Rush plays those moments of Albert's two extremes—defeat and anger—and every moment in between with an unflappable tranquility, the conviction of a professional who does not need accreditations or praise to know he is doing right by his patients.

Screenwriter David Seidler finely balances the men's separate stories, their unique dynamic that shatters differences social rank, and the behind-the-scenes political environment in which Albert must navigate with diplomatic precision.

The film hits its climax with the titular radio announcement, in which George VI lays out the reasons for entering into war. The tension of the final scene comes not from the reality of war (although Firth's delivery and the powerful sentiments within the text do convey that) but from the detachment of the situation. It's politics as theater, where the victory at hand belongs entirely to George VI (For balance, Hooper cuts back and forth between the reading and shots of the common people listening and realizing that life as they know it is about to change).

It's a strangely powerful moment as a result, and while The King's Speech appears a story of a man overcoming hardship, it's also inherently, generally and quite specifically, about the adapting relationship of a monarch with his people.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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