he King's Speech feels like one of the best films of 1997 or '98. It is in many ways a mash-up of Good Will Hunting (a man deeply damaged by his troubled upbringing is helped by an unorthodox therapist), Elizabeth (an English monarch portrayed during a turning point in the life and times of an empire), and Shakespeare in Love (an elegant, adult British drama co-starring Geoffrey Rush quoting the Bard).
The King's Speech is excellent in the way those films were: well-made and crowd-pleasing, smart but not inaccessible or snobby.
The film stars Colin Firth as Albert George — Bertie to his family — the Duke of York in 1925 when The King's Speech opens. Second in line of succession to his father, King George V (Michael Gambon), Bertie has to perform all manner of high-profile functions as a member of the royal family. That includes public speaking, which is a problem for Bertie, because he has a debilitating stammer.
His difficulty is evinced at the start as Bertie has to give a broadcast throughout the empire — at that time, the film reminds us, encompassing a quarter of the world's population. The elocution doesn't go well. Bertie's stammer is an immobilizing force, capable of seizing his larynx and stopping the hearts of listeners everywhere.
Nine years later, Bertie, mostly at the behest of his wife, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Helena Bonham Carter), has undergone a series of remedies for his speech difficulties and seen all manner of physicians. The last disgrace comes from a doc who has Bertie put glass marbles in his mouth and enunciate the words around the literal impediments. It worked for Demosthenes, the doctor advises. Bertie looks like a fool, and he knows it.
Bertie is done, but his wife won't have it. She ventures to a working-class neighborhood in London to see a speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Logue's office is sparsely furnished and appointed with peeling walls and a down-in-the-mouth sense of doom.
Logue is the commonest of commoners — an Australian — but it's all counterpoint to the man himself. Logue is a cheery fellow full of colonial spunk and with a great bedside manner. He's used to working with children. Which is probably why he makes a good therapist for Bertie, a royal in arrested development.
Logue's method of treatment differs from everyone else Bertie has encountered. First, Logue needs to level the playing field between the commoner and aristocrat. He insists on calling Bertie by that familiar familial nickname. Bertie is, naturally, prickly at being spoken to in this manner.
Prescriptively, Logue wants to resolve the psychological elements that lead to Bertie's handicap. No infant is born with a stammer, Logue says. Therein lies the cure: Bertie's speech difficulty isn't a permanent part of who he is.
As Logue and Bertie work on the personal issues, world events are swirling toward crisis. Now in 1936, King George V has died and Bertie's brother, Edward (Guy Pearce), has taken his place as monarch.
There's a hitch: Edward is in love with Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), twice divorced and from Baltimore, America. Anecdotally at least, Edward and Wallis had one of the greatest romances of the 20th century: Edward the king, impeded from marrying Wallis, abdicates the throne to be with his great love. Awwww, sweet.
The relationship portrayed in The King's Speech isn't nearly as romantic. Edward is a cad — selfish in his mishandling of his responsibility to his family and empire — and Wallis is a cow — uncouth in a broadly American way.
With Edward gone, Bertie is forced to the top and becomes King George VI. And, as any comfy-chair historian knows, the late '30s were a tricky time to be a European leader. Those stammers Bertie and Logue have been working on? They've become a matter of national concern. England needs its monarch out front and vocal and taking the reins in response to the German threat.
Firth is roundly excellent, in a way opposite of, say, Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Portman's performance is great, because of the extreme effort you can tell went into making her character — a physically demanding exertion that's all left on the screen. Firth is great, because, upon reflection, acting his stammer clearly also required immense physical preparation, but on the screen you can't see the effort at all. All you can see is the character and the characteristic, not the actor and the acted affliction.
Tom Hooper (The Damned United, John Adams) directs. The King's Speech works as a stammer-cure procedural, as a human drama, and as a relationship movie, with Bertie and Logue as the principals in an approximation of the plot structure of a romantic comedy.
The set design is gorgeous and serves the characters. Why does Bertie stammer? You might be intimidated too by the austere décor and its implied historical gravity, by the pomp and the circumstances. Significantly, in The King's Speech, the "it's not your fault" scene (à la Good Will Hunting) comes at Westminster Abbey.