Colin Firth wins our hearts in the tale of a tongue-tied king who, thrust into history's spotlight, learned how to roar.
You might not think of a posh costume piece like "The King's Speech" as a buddy comedy, though it is; a dazzling example of that shopworn form. Put aside the finery, eloquent dialogue and sublime acting, and you have a marvelous odd couple farce featuring Bertie and Lionel, a timid, tongue-tied king and a casual, self-assured commoner.
Colin Firth plays England's George VI, father to Queen Elizabeth and monarch in World War II; Geoffrey Rush is an Australian speech therapist recruited to tame His Majesty's crippling stammer. Their collaboration is unmitigated delight, and Tom Hooper's crackling good film is one of this year's supreme pleasures.
Fear of public speaking is said to be one of the most common phobias, and Hooper sets up his story with a sequence sure to give sufferers a serious case of the sweats. We open in 1925 when the king-to-be is still Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George, Duke of York. Bertie, as his family calls him, has the misfortune to have been born into an era when his subjects expect to hear their royal family over the radio.
His face a mask of agonized anxiety, Firth approaches the microphone to offer the closing speech for the Empire Exhibition at packed Wembley Stadium.
Moving like a condemned man walking his last mile, he faces the expectant throng, opens his mouth, and chokes on every unruly vowel and rebellious consonant.
"I have weceived a ... a ... a ... " The speech is a fiasco. The people are disappointed. Bertie, already burdened with an inferiority complex, is humiliated. Meanwhile, offstage in Germany, a gifted orator named Herr Hitler is preparing to use his talent for public speaking to turn the tide of history.
Bertie's devoted wife (Helena Bonham Carter) Elizabeth is steadfastly supportive as he seeks a cure from a gallery of quacks. For nearly a decade they prescribe cigarettes to relax the throat and require him to fill his mouth with marbles before practicing his enunciation.
Lionel Logue, operating out of spectacularly shabby offices, is something of a last resort: an Australian, and a onetime actor at that. "My husband is required to speak publicly," Elizabeth says, meeting him under the pseudonym Mrs. Johnson. "Perhaps he should change jobs," Logue replies.
Lionel, who had had impressive success helping shell-shocked WWI veterans regain their voices, takes the case, but sets firm conditions and demands "total trust." The sessions will be conducted in his tatty studio, they will be scheduled at his convenience, and there will be none of that stuffy court formality. The ironic, humorous Logue, who sees himself as a free man, not a subject, wants to be called Lionel. And he'll call the Duke Bertie.
Firth bristles at the impertinence, but has no choice. Rush soon has him dancing, rolling across the floor, waggling his jowls, singing his thoughts to the tune of "Swanee River" and blurting out eruptions of uproarious profanity.
The unorthodox methods begin to free Bertie's tongue, and his heart follows. The social distance between the men begins to matter less as the distant, walled-off noble recognizes in Lionel something he has never encountered. A true, outspoken friend.
Logue's therapeutic model is a sort of stealth psychotherapy, and the script delves into the dynamics of the royally screwed-up royal family that stifled the prince's authentic voice. Bertie's chilly, demanding father, George V, never thought much of him, "correcting" his left-handedness and placing him in painful metal braces to correct his knock-knees. George's motto was, "I was afraid of my father and I expect my children to be afraid of me." The king delivers well-received Christmas addresses to the nation; why can't Bertie just get on with it?
Bertie's older brother, Edward, first in line to the throne, is a playboy infatuated with a divorcee from Baltimore, the vampy Wallis Simpson. Michael Gambon and Guy Pearce are excellently cast as the aging lion and his peacock offspring. Rush, who has numerous scenes of ebullient family life with his brood, is joyously funny.
Still, the film belongs to Firth's emotionally wounded Bertie. Rush sets him up in every scene, then stands aside to let his costar soar; he's the definition of a supporting actor. Firth takes a stiff, inhibited, overprivileged man and makes him a heroic underdog who fully engages our hearts.
Logue helps Bertie rehearse for his coronation following Edward's 1936 abdication by mocking the ceremony and lolling about on the throne. "You can't sit there," Bertie bellows. "Why not, it's a chair," Lionel retorts. The monarch percolates with annoyance, and sure enough: Wrath frees his voice.
But his greatest challenge lay ahead, as it became crucial for him to inspire his people throughout the empire with wartime radio speeches. When he strides up to the ominous microphone again, he's like a fighter in a rematch with a fearsome opponent. And every member of the audience is in his corner, rooting him on to victory.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186