Firth, Rush Make 'Speech' Rousing
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"My husband has seen everyone," Helena Bonham Carter's character tiredly complains to a fellow named Lionel Logue early on in "The King's Speech." And at that moment she sounds almost exactly like Ellen Burstyn in "The Exorcist" making a very similar complaint to Jason Miller concerning the strange case of her disturbed daughter. Ah yes, the old "we've been to everybody, and you're the only person left; please help" gambit. While it would not be entirely accurate to call this film, directed by Tom Hooper from a script by David Seidler, "The Exorcist" crossed with "The Karate Kid" crossed with "Shakespeare in Love," that's not really too much of a stretch. As in "The Exorcist," this is about a character suffering from a problem for which every seeming solution has been tried, and none has worked, calling for extraordinary measures to be taken. Except here the problem is not demonic possession and its attendant manifestations of blasphemy, murder and crucifix abuse, but rather, a really, really, really bad stammer suffered by the England's Duke of York (Colin Firth), eventually to become King George VI, someone who simply has to get a grip on his public speaking chops, especially since the invention and popularity of this wireless device. "Now we must invade peoples' homes and ingratiate ourselves with them," the Duke's dad, George V (Michael Gambon), complains of radio to his son at one point early on. But Bertie, as he's known to his few intimates, can barely begin to ingratiate in person, such is his agony at getting the words out.
And like "The Karate Kid," this is a picture about self-help with the invaluable assistance of an unexpected and unorthodox mentor, in this case the aforementioned Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a loosey-goosey speech therapist whose informal but demanding manner is at great odds with the stiff, emotionally stunted formality adopted by the Duke also known as Bertie. Rush, an Oscar winner for his turn in "Shine" and an early favorite to earn another here, brings great energetic brio to his assertions and exertions as Logue, while Firth, who's long been cited as an award-worthy performer and got an Oscar nomination for last year's "A Single Man," is perhaps even more exceptional at conveying the complexities, neuroses and discomforts of a fundamentally decent character who had no expectations of having precisely such greatness being thrust upon him -- he only became king because his brother, Edward VIII, ditched the throne to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
And, as you may have inferred by now, it's like "Shakespeare in Love" in that it's a largely Briton-made period piece based around actual historical personages, and that has Oscar-bait written all over it ... not to mention a cast that really just acts the hell out of its admittedly rich, often funny, and sometimes unexpectedly moving material. In a recent think piece centering on this film in the British paper The Independent, the critic Geoffrey Macnab noted, "The lasting irony about 'royal' movies is that they inevitably end up reinforcing the institution of monarchy, whatever the intention of the film-makers." And boy, does this film ever do that -- to the extent here that one wonders whether audiences will get as reliably misty-eyed as they're supposed to over the notion of a soulful monarch addressing an in-need-of-consolation populace as war looms, given that in the wake of the death of Princess Diana public ardor over all things royal seems to have waned to the extent that such personages now play as slightly anachronistic. Or, to put it another way, can King George do big box office in the age of The Situation?
That question is, thankfully, not my concern. But for what it's worth, as a genteel middlebrow entertainment, "The King's Speech" is largely very well-played indeed, and thus deserves to do well. Unlike a lot of other directors working in the genre we'll call Distinguished Drama, Hooper has something resembling a visual sense, and the way he isolates Firth's character against the gigantic oxidizing wall of Logue's clinic in the scenes where he's beginning therapy is just one of the many touches that liven up the homilies of self-empowerment that help the King rise to many occasions, the climactic one being the title speech concerning the onset of World War II. I rather wish the film had gone all "Inglourious Basterds" at the end, and shown the Germans immediately surrendering due to the force of George's oration, but of course that wasn't going to happen. In fact, one of the nicer things about the film's portrayal of events is that it doesn't depict an overnight "cure": The relationship between Logue and his highness is presented realistically, as an ongoing process, and of course, as an eventual friendship, which is, here as in so many other films, the place where its heart eventually abides. And in the end the fact that Firth, Rush, Bonham-Carter and all else make you believe in that heart is what matters, whether you buy the institution of the monarchy or not.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.