There's something about the real-life British monarchy that makes for great onscreen drama. Scheming princes, lovestruck queens, and ineffectual kings have managed to generate dramatic fireworks with their occasionally mundane, often stuffy subjects. The King's Speech, the latest movie in this long line of captivating stories rendered from seemingly blah subjects, revolves around a royal highness' speech impediment. What results is one of the best-acted movies of the year.
It starts in 1925, when King George VI of England — then known as Albert, Duke of York — is asked to speak in front of a stadium of people, a talk that's also being broadcast live across the entire nation. The future king (an excellent Colin Firth) stumbles and stammers, as his subjects and wife (Helena Bonham Carter, also excellent) look on, uncomfortable and embarrassed for the poor chap.
Fast-forward five years, when a hack doctor is prescribing a remedy for George's stutter: smoking and a mouthful of marbles. The king-to-be has tried things like this dozens of times without success. He's fed up. But George's loyal, persistent, and tough wife finds Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, terrific too), a speech therapist with "unorthodox and controversial" methods who guarantees he can cure George's stammer.
And so begins the film's dramatic center. But in a two-hour movie about a guy's stutter, of course there are plenty of detours along the way, including looks at Lionel's failed acting career and sorta shady past, the politics fueling the royal family, and a looming war. Plus, there are loads of psychological problems at the root of George's stutter, which makes public speaking something he fears and avoids at all costs — not really convenient, considering his position.
In some ways, The King's Speech is about the struggle between two stubborn men. Lionel will see George only in his office; George insists on being addressed as Your Royal Highness. They spar furiously at their first meeting. But you just know their relationship will turn all warm and fuzzy on the way to George's recovery (indeed, the two remained lifelong friends).
David Seidler's screenplay contains more humor than most period pieces ("Timing isn't my strong suit," George tells Lionel after he asks George to tell him a joke). And director Tom Hooper takes off some of the glassy-eyed haze usually found in this type of movie.
But it's Firth who carries the film with his best-ever performance. He brings vulnerability to both his acting and his character, as he slowly overcomes his stammer to get to the climactic moment of the movie's title. (In a nutshell, George's dickhead brother relinquishes the crown to his younger sibling, who then must address his country regarding its declaration of war on Germany.) It's a performance of royal highness. And it's a performance that makes a royal subject very real.
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