The King’s Speech

As with this year’s other hotly tipped Oscar contender, The Social Network, the plot of The King’s Speech sounds so dull it’s almost comic. ‘English prince with speech defect becomes king due to brother’s abdication, conquers said defect with help from eccentric Australian, rallies country for WWII’. Actually put like that it doesn’t sound quite so bad, does it? And so it proves in Tom Hooper’s compelling film, which takes a topic which could easily have turned into BBC2 Sunday afternoon middlebrow filler and makes it altogether more cinematic and vital, aided by two magnificent central performances.

The action begins in 1925, with Prince Albert, aka ‘Bertie’ (Colin Firth) delivering a miserably fated speech, made unintelligible by his appalling stammer. It then moves to 1935, with the ageing George V (Michael Gambon) past his peak, and his playboy eldest son David (Guy Pearce) expecting to inherit the throne, even as he dallied with the wildly unsuitable Wallis Simpson. Bertie is no better, despite years of ineffectual treatments. In despair, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) enlists the help of failed Shakespearean actor and speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose unorthodox treatment leads to a good deal of witty back-and-forth between the two men, courtesy of David Seidler’s’ amusing script, before the predictable beats of this kind of film are hit – a disagreement leading to an estrangement, a reconciliation, and then the final build-up before the uplifting climax and triumph. It’s familiar from any number of sports movies (and actually not that dissimilar to Good Will Hunting, in its near-constant mining of Bertie’s grim childhood as the source for his current predicament), but done with style and verve.

Both Firth and Rush are given marvellously compelling parts to play, and do so with elan. Firth, in his second great performance of the year after A Single Man, beautifully captures the fear and shame of a man for whom greatness has very much been thrust upon him, especially when he is forced to become king after his brother’s abdication, but also his wry wit and ever-so-English stoicism at his plight. Rush, in the showier role, is marvellously entertaining as the useless actor but ahead-of-his-time therapist, exploring Bertie’s plight with unconventional therapies including orgies of swearing. They’re backed up by a fine supporting cast of great British character actors (and Pearce), mainly playing types rather than people, but it’s good to see the likes of Anthony Andrews and David Bamber (as, respectively, Stanley Baldwin and a dismissive theatre director).

If the ending’s move from a personal, private drama to something more sweeping and universal does feel like a change of tone, it’s at least accomplished elegantly and movingly – indeed, only the inclusion of Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’ could make it more obvious that it’s supposed to be an uplifting climax. Never mind that it’s almost entirely fudged for dramatic purposes, there’s no denying that it works as a piece of audience-pleasing tub-thumpery, as does the entire film. Oscars have gone to worse pieces of cinema.


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