From the royal-biopic tap comes “The King’s Speech,” an awards-season release about a pent-up monarch and the unconventional speech therapist who helps him build confidence and realize his strength of character. The recipe-book presentation surely doesn’t do the story justice, but the cast is sensational, and the result is a treat.
Director Tom Hooper (“The Damned United”) and screenwriter David Seidler combine Hollywood-style odd-couple and dedicated-teacher formulas while some affecting human spark and a wealth of personality offset the routineness in this comic drama set in 1920s and 1930s Britain.
Bertie (Colin Firth), the Duke of York, has struggled with a debilitating stammer since childhood. With his brother Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) abdicating the throne to marry divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson, Bertie will soon become king (to be called George VI) and will be making speeches often. When we first meet him, he can hardly bear the sight of a microphone.
Hope arrives when Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), Bertie’s supportive but snobbish wife (and mother of the current Queen Elizabeth), hires nonconformist speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to help.
A rumpled, brazenly opinionated Australian commoner and failed actor, Lionel treats Bertie with sessions of waltzing, singing and, in some particularly funny scenes, swearing.
He also acts as a psychotherapist and helps Bertie confront his childhood traumas.
Initially resistant, classist and exploding with pent-up anger, Bertie progresses remarkably with Lionel.
As the two men clash, bond, argue, sever ties and reunite for the climax — a speech delivered by Bertie as Britain goes to war against Germany — formula prevails, and the dramatic liberties taken by the filmmakers aren’t always credible. Lionel seems never to be wrong about anything. A speech-therapy montage is Hollywood corn.
But the performances are so stellar and the sessions between Lionel and Bertie (who, in real life, would become longtime friends) so funny, textured and emotionally charged that the film quickly becomes a pleaser with the appeal of both a prestige biodrama and a mismatched-buddy comedy.
Firth, who can play repressed people like none other, powerfully conveys the feelings of shame and inadequacy felt by Bertie, along with the isolation of a king who has never seriously interacted with a commoner.
Rush is enormously entertaining as the free-spirited Lionel (at one point he plunks himself down on the throne, rendering the king horror-struck). He also makes his character’s sadder shades felt.
Bonham Carter is wonderful but has little to do. Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, Derek Jacobi as the archbishop and Michael Gambon as Bertie’s overbearing father, George V, provide additional color.
The King’s Speech (3 stars)
Starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall
Written by David Seidler
Directed by Tom Hooper
Running time 1 hour 58 minutes