Colin Firth gives the most British of stiff-upper-lip British performances as King George VI during World War II in The King’s Speech, a fun performance romp also featuring Geoffrey Rush.
When we first meet Bertie (Colin Firth), Duke of York and the second son of King George V (Michael Gambon), he is a shy man with a stutter, terrified of public speaking. He soldiers on with his civic duties but is comforted in the knowledge that he is unlikely to have to be in the serious spotlight as his older brother David, the eventual King Edward VIII, (Guy Pearce), is next in line for the throne. Still, solving the problem of his stammer is a major concern to Bertie and his wife Elizabeth, the future Queen Mum (Helena Bonham Carter). So much so that Elizabeth visits an unorthodox speech therapist, an Australian named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), to see if he could finally be the one — after a long line of unsuccessful doctors — to help Bertie overcome his speaking problems. In the tradition of unorthodox movie healers and teachers, Lionel seems at first totally the wrong fit — he insists on calling his patient “Bertie,” not “Your Majesty” or even “Sir”; he asks inappropriate personal questions; he suggests techniques like singing or swearing (two times when Bertie doesn’t stammer and, in the case of the later, the sole reason for this movie’s R rating). But naturally, his techniques start to work and not a moment too soon, as King Edward VII’s relationship with twice divorced American Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) threatens his reign and pushes Bertie closer to the thorn.
Maybe I’m just a sucker for the combination of good oratory, Beethoven and Colin Firth, but the film’s climax when a now crowned Bertie gives his first speech to the British people and the empire’s colonies as they enter World War II actually gave me chills. (No, no I won’t spoiler alert actual history.) Firth, who is one of the best serious actors around and (after years of being known mostly as a bookworm’s pin-up for his Pride and Prejudice/Bridget Jones roles) is finally getting credit for it, nails the scene. It is the perfect capper of a performance that is always engrossing.
Likewise, Rush — who is absolutely made for these performances that mix solemnity and goofiness — is a delight to watch and the two men together keep your eyes glued to the screen. If you think long and deep about the story, there isn’t much to it — a man with a serious inferiority complex and a daunting job learns how to give a good speech. But these two men — with help from Pearce as the flighty Edward VII and Carter as Bertie’s loving wife — create a performance that is edge-of-your-seat riveting even though you go in knowing every single thing that happens, right down to how life will go for Bertie’s oldest daughter Elizabeth (Freya Wilson).
Sometimes it is enough to simply watch stellar performances.
Rated R for some language. Directed by Tom Hooper and written by David Seidler, The King’s Speech is an hour and 51 minutes long and distributed by The Weinstein Company.