The King’s Speech begins with a microphone. It is a benign image, one that elicits no fear or emotion from the audience. But a moment later, when we see the future King George VI (Colin Firth) gripped by panic in those anxious final moments before a public performance, the microphone begins to grow as menacing for us as it is for him. By the time he attempts to speak to a crowd at Wembley, his voice shattered by a hopelessly bad stammering problem, it’s downright unbearable.
Tom Hooper’s film doesn’t get flashy with this premise. Instead, he assembles a straightforward, classically styled film that tells a true story about as well as anyone can tell it. It is an all out acting clinic, and if the film itself is a close to perfect example of how to tell a story the right way.
The King’s Speech initially follows Firth’s character in his days as the Duke of York (he’s nicknamed “Bertie” for short), serving as second in line to the throne behind his brother, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce). He and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) seem to have exhausted every speech therapy resource within their grasp when she finds Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a Shakespeare quoting, eccentrically unorthodox Australian who may possess the key to curing Firth’s stammer. Rush plays Logue with such head-on eccentricity that we soak up almost every second he’s on screen with a smile on our faces. He’s irresistible.
The relationship that develops between Firth and Rush makes up the foundation for the rest of the film. Logue demands complete control over their speech therapy sessions, seeming to pay no mind to the fact that Firth is of the royal bloodline. Firth resists at first, skeptical of Logue’s somewhat bizarre tactics, but he starts to give in more and more as progress starts to show.
This progress becomes all the more important when Firth’s brother abdicates his position as king, leaving Firth to assume the throne as King George VI. Firth is initially reluctant to accept this power, but in the end he has no choice. He is now left with the responsibility of speaking for the entire nation of England as war with Hitler’s Germany looms large in the distance, and so his ability to control his voice and give confidence to his people becomes more important than ever.
That The King’s Speech is able to create such an emotional investment in a story about a speech impediment is a testament to the strength of Firth’s performance. This is not a life or death matter. As far as stakes go in the movies, having or not having a stutter is a relatively tame compared to other possibilities. But Firth is able to make the audience feel the weight of the anxiety and self doubt that come with his stammer, and so it becomes as important to us as it is to him.
Much of this comes through Firth’s facial and vocal acting. His lips and jaw seem to quiver with every sound, occasionally looking as if they may fall off altogether. The skin around his throat shakes with the terror that accompanies every broken syllable and each deformed word. His performance makes us feel something strong in a situation where our emotional investment could so easily be half hearted. He takes over the film within its opening minutes and never lets it go.
Everything seems to be working in The King’s Speech’s favor, and yet, parts of it feel a bit underwhelming. That isn’t to say that the movie is bad, it’s quite good, but it feels almost too stuck to its familiar formula to really floor you. As was the case with The Fighter, it’s a great inspirational story, but its predictability does limit its overall power as a whole. And while the film succeeds in the long run, there are a few moments when it seems to drag a bit, seeming to repeat the same conflict over and over. By the time the film reaches its climax, however, these have become minor concerns because of how well Hooper has finished the movie. We forgive small blemishes in the wake of such a well controlled and powerfully executed ending.
Even if it isn’t revolutionary or perfect, The King’s Speech is still a success overall, giving both Firth and Rush a chance to put their immense talents on display. It’s a great story, and even if it feels like one you’ve heard before, it’s one you’ll be more than happy you’ve heard again.
Powered by grand performances from Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech is a remarkably solid film, even if it is a bit formulaic: B+