Sunday, January 23, 2011

The King's Speech

It’s been long understood that British history is eternally ripe for great films based on and around it, and one need no greater proof than here, where a story of a man learning to overcome a speech impediment winds up being one of the year’s best films. It’s a funny, touching, intelligent, powerful effort, of the sort that one rarely finds in the movies these days. That it’s stuffed to bursting with great actors is just icing on the cake.

The film follows King George VI (Colin Firth) in the years before and after his ascension to the crown. His father King George V (Michael Gambon) has decided that, due to the rise of radio, Firth’s stammer needs to be corrected if he’s ever going to make a worthwhile king (yes, he has an older brother in Guy Pearce, but even his father thinks Pearce is worthless and will never make it as England’s ruler). To fix his problem, he and his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) enlist the aid of speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a man with a rather unorthodox approach to fixing speech problems that may come from having never received any actual training for his profession.

Perhaps the main key to the film comes from how Logue is Australian, and so doesn’t have the same politeness and deference to royalty that most British people did at the time. He quickly realizes that the problem with Firth’s stutter is mental and not physical, and so decides the only real route to curing him is to befriend him, beginning by demanding they call each other by first names and standing as equals at all times. This is, to put it mildly, not the normal method of dealing with a prince, though it does seem to have more of an effect than the more physical exercises Firth demands they also do, such as rolling around on the floor to loosen up muscles and saying ridiculous tongue twisters, which Rush rattles off so quickly I couldn’t even hear them, much less repeat them. Still, it’s a lot of fun watching how he works his way under Firth’s skin to help the healing process, such as when he decides to lounge for a bit in the coronation throne at Westminster Abbey. Firth is outraged that he would do such a thing, while Rush just casually says “It’s just a chair. Look, people carved their names in it!”

I’ve not seen director Tom Hooper’s previous film The Damned United, but it’s clear I was missing out. He directs The King’s Speech with a sure hand, filming most of the movie in cramped interior locations to help subtly reinforce how Firth is imprisoned within his own body. When you watch it (and I know you will, you trust my opinion so very much), note how often Rush decides to help Firth by opening up a window to let fresh air in, symbolically opening up Firth’s voice in the process. It’s nothing that’s overemphasized or clumsy, it’s just a sign of Hooper’s mastery of the form.

We’ll be finding out this week if this movie gets nominated for any Academy Awards, though I will predict here that it gets a Best Picture nod. Hopefully it'll get some acting nods as well, as Firth and Rush do some incredible work together. If nothing else, it’s earned these for being such an utterly fascinating film set in England in the 1930s, as war is rapidly approaching, and managing to not need a single scene of combat to make its point.

Rating: ****

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