Friday, December 24, 2010

Review: "The King's Speech"

Everybody's bad at something.

Perhaps you can't shoot a basketball, or your spelling is atrocious. I for one have a terrible memory for names. What is universal about these myriad faults is that we all carefully protect our shortcomings by keeping them private, or finding a way to work around them.

(True fact: I keep a chart of my street block so I know what to call neighbors.)

But what if the one thing you were terrible at also happened to be the sole criteria by which everyone judged you? If your inescapable duty was confounded by your greatest disability?

Such was the fate of King George VI of England, who suffered from a crippling stutter. He was helped by an unconventional Australian speech therapist, and was able to serve as an inspiration to his people during the dark days of World War II.

"The King's Speech," the film about his struggle, is straight out of the school of Inspirational Tales from History. What it lacks in novelty it makes up for in executing this type of movie-making about as well as it can be done.

Colin Firth as the king and Geoffrey Rush as his therapist offer a pair of tremendous performances, in roles that pop off the screen notwithstanding the constraints of a slightly staid screenplay (by David Seidler).

Despite being a loving father and husband, dedicated Navy officer and utterly loyal to the monarchy and his nation, Prince Albert (as he was known before his coronation) was belittled by his family simply because he stammered. Public speeches were embarrassing, halting disasters, both for Albert and the people who had to listen to them.

His father (a brief but memorable appearance by Michael Gambon) regrets the new requirements technology forces upon the monarchy, like his annual Christmas speeches over the radio.

"Now we must invade our subjects' home and ingratiate ourselves," the king complains. "We have become actors!"

The second in line for the throne, Albert was safely shunted to minor appearances where he could keep a low profile, which suited him just fine.

It might never have mattered, until his brother Edward (Guy Pearce), after assuming the crown in 1936, abdicated a few months later to marry an American divorcé. It's interesting to see the different portrayals of this event: Americans regard it as a grand romantic gesture, while Albert and his family see it as foolish and mortifying.

At the prodding of his wife (Helena Bonham Carter), the soon-to-be-king seeks help from Lionel Logue (Rush), whose methods are unorthodox, to say the least. He demands the prince come to his office, rather than calling at the palace. On his home turf, Lionel insists they treat each other as equals -- even presuming to call the prince "Bertie," a familial nickname.

There are also strange breathing exercises, tongue twisters, singing his words and, most memorably, spewing a string of expletives that in of itself earned the film an R rating. (It probably would've gotten a G otherwise.)

Lionel's lessons intensify as Albert takes up the crown -- even burrowing into his personal life. It is Lionel's professional opinion that no child is born a stutterer: Some kind of trauma compels them to be afraid of their own voice.

Firth is by turns droll, arrogant and sensitive as Albert/George -- the sort of pampered son who has more grit and wry humor than anyone suspects. Asked by his daughter what Hitler is shouting about in a newsreel, there's no hesitation to his comeback: "I don't know. But he seems to be saying it rather well."

Director Tom Hooper, who helmed last year's excellent "The Damned United," recognizes the material for what it is and emphasizes its obvious strengths. "The King's Speech" knows exactly how to get its point across.

3.5 stars out of four

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