There’s a certain brand of veddy, veddy British import, usually well-regarded amongst Oscar voters, that I find almost impossible to get excited about. These tend to be popular holiday diversions with little lasting shelf life. If you disagree, answer me this: When was the last time you watched (or thought about) Shakespeare in Love ?
This year’s model: The King’s Speech , a perfectly adequate middlebrow crowd-pleaser that appears to have been custom-engineered for awards consideration. I enjoyed the movie thoroughly while watching it, and by this time next month I’m sure it will have completely vanished from my memory.
Directed by Tom Hooper, the picture stars Colin Firth as King George VI, but when we first meet him he’s just poor stammering Bertie, the second son of a mean old monarch (Michael Gambon) and sickly kid brother to loutish playboy Prince Edward (Guy Pearce). With the recent advent of radio, royalty is now required to do more than look regal and wave to the crowd. They’re expected to be articulate, but sad-sack Bertie has a mouth full of marbles. Quite literally, at one point—his residence is often frequented by charlatan speech therapists hawking phony cures.
Exasperated, Bertie’s loving wife Elizabeth (an appealingly tart Helena Bonham Carter) enlists the assistance of one Lionel Logue, an oddball Australian with some unique ideas as to what constitutes proper elocution lessons; he’s more like a psychotherapist with excellent diction.
Played by Geoffrey Rush with clipped precision and significantly less ham than usual, Lionel is a master enunciator and a staggeringly inept amateur stage actor. He’s also one of those old-movie-standby break-all-the-rules, unconventional, inspirational types who exist to loosen up stuffy rich white people, and, not coincidentally, to ennoble the audience with a little underclass brio.
Lionel has strict rules for office visits. There will be no fancy-schmancy titles, as the doctor and the patient must regard one another as equals for his offbeat methods to work. There’s a fair amount of comic mileage gained from snooty Firth’s initial irritation with Rush’s cheek. The monarch is so used to being fawned over, he’s entirely unaccustomed to hearing the word “no.”
Would you ever guess that after initially disliking one another, the unlikely duo forms a fast friendship? Lionel suspects there’s something psychological causing his patient’s stutter, and before long we get a glimpse into the fabulous dysfunction of the Royal Family.
Dad is on his deathbed, but caddish Prince Edward is hardly ready to assume the throne. Gallivanting from party to party with the notorious American divorceé Wallis Simpson (who, we are told, learned how to please men while spending time in Shanghai), the heir seems blithely unconcerned about this Hitler fellow causing such a ruckus in other bits of Europe.
The abdication of Edward VIII is probably story enough for an entire movie of its own, but it’s a mere speed bump here that never allows the focus to stray too far from Firth and Rush’s Good Will Hunting therapy sessions. (You half-expect Lionel to say, “Bertie, World War II is not your fault.”) As such a formula demands a massive payoff, The King’s Speech builds up not to the coronation, but to King George’s epic radio address as Britain enters the war. Shot like a prizefight, with suspense hanging over every syllable, the film threatens to become Rocky for stutterers.
But it still entertains. Boasting a bustling gallery of British character actors who probably carpooled over from the set of Harry Potter , there’s no shortage of droll performances. Gambon makes a convincing tyrant, and Pearce finds a couple of surprising grace notes as a hedonist who can’t carry the crown. As Winston Churchill, Timothy Spall somehow manages to chew scenery even while standing still, and I was quite taken with the no-nonsense backbone Bonham Carter brings to a barely written role.
One may, however, quibble with director Hooper’s bizarre decision to shoot the movie with wide-angle fisheye lenses, distorting the backgrounds and framing the characters in odd tableaus that emphasize dead space at the top of the frame. It often looks like you’re watching the film through a peephole.
But screwy camera choices be damned: This sort of thing lives and dies by its leads, and both carry the day quite winningly. Always adept at playing the underdog, Colin Firth will no doubt be lauded for his technical handle on a difficult speech impediment, but he’s even better at conveying a bullied kid’s crippling fear of inadequacy. His slowly dawning confidence is a pleasure to behold, as is Geoffrey Rush’s manner of making mule-headed stubbornness appear elegant.
All in all, The King’s Speech is perfectly pleasant and completely unremarkable. As far as end-of-the-year Oscar bait goes, you could do a lot worse.
Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush
Running time: 118 minutes