The King's Speech: Film Review

Directed by: Tom Hooper, Runtime: 118 minutes
Grade: A-

I'll be frank: there's really not much negative to be said about The King's Speech, Tom Hooper's biopic about the stammer-laden King George VI in pre-WWII England. Those who've seen the director's historical portraits The Damned United and HBO's miniseries John Adams will attest to his skill in recreating time periods with flair, both in composition and punchy performances from his leads. His talent feeds well into this clear-cut story of royalty confronting a debilitating condition to better his presence in the public's eye, which depicts this historical against-the-odds tale with a clear head and a concise eye, engineered to be an award contender through a level of polish that's hard to overlook. Even if David Seidler's witty and perceptive script falls into the trappings of straightforward dramatization that lead to a foreseeable catharsis, as one would expect, it's the performances that elevate this roaring crowd-pleaser -- and elevate they undoubtedly do.

Colin Firth plays Albert, the Duke of York, a noble but stubborn son of the royal family who locks up in agonizing stutters when speaking publicly. And, for that matter, privately. Nerves, an actual impediment, or a combination of both might be to blame, though he's visited countless upper-crust specialists who implement varying (at times archaic) techniques to no avail. While he's suffered this from an early age, circumstances surrounding George V's kingship and health have deemed it necessary for Albert to "prepare" for worst-case circumstances, lighting a somewhat desperate and tongue-tied fire under the urgency to fix his weakness. In a desperate effort, his wife (played sublimely by Helena Bonham-Carter) visits a well-regarded Australian ex-actor turned speech coach, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), to see if he'd be able to help with the potential king of England. He accepts, of course, more so than "Bertie".

The playful but potent mental struggle between Bertie and Lionel becomes the epicenter to The King's Speech's expressive streak, taking us into the process of a stately prince reluctantly surrendering his authority to a common man determined to fix his impediment. Taking place in the instructor's office -- a rustic and echoic space with rough wood and wallpaper textures abound -- Lionel must maintain a level of dominion over his patients, achieved only by evening the playing field between him and his subject. For Bertie, that's a tough endeavor; he's a twitchy, self-doubting man with his claws dug deep into his royal heritage and poise, out of both pride for what he represents and insecurity over his worth outside his lineage. But Lionel's determination makes him up to the task of dragging Bertie kicking-and-screaming through unconventional exercises, from sternum-strengthening and tongue-twisters to finding comfort and confidence in barking aloud explicative-adorned (and often funny) diatribes.

The King's Speech relies on its performances, there's no doubting that, and thankfully there's a pair of exquisite turns that shape this low-key historical account of a speech coach and his stately subject into a true spectacle. Colin Firth aptly handles the decorous trimmings of Prince Albert, where he creates an absorbing presence about the future king that melds perception of his royal stature with a vulnerable deconstruction of the wall that separates him from Lionel -- and from the commoners he sees on the streets. The look in Firth's eyes, his composure during the stammers, and the way his body communicates insecurity, compassion and deep-rooted discomfort remains gripping throughout. Even more impressive, however, is Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue. Rush handles a fused stretch of emotions as Logue, from a tack-sharp sense of humor to his confident exertion as an authority over Bertie, and his unassailable presence actually drives the film through a charismatic insistence on humanizing the prince.

Watching how Prince Albert slowly grabs hold of his issues -- both his stammering and the reasons behind his stammering -- gives The King's Speech an enriching tone driven by conquering adversity, which Tom Hooper composes in a safe but eloquent cinematic style. He employs Pirate Radio cinematographer Danny Cohen to lend the film his eye for intimate skewed angles and cool palette choices, which adds richness to the graceful motion during the sessions through tight close-ups and full-body expository shots. Alexandre Desplat's beautifully-inspired classical score bolsters their movement, guiding simple scenes of Lionel's off-and-on success in hammering out Bertie's fumbles with a level of grace that simply makes them delightful to watch. In fact, from the steady editing style and blunt accents to the costume work, there's not a stitch out of place in Hooper's simple but sturdy construction.

As it moves through foreseeable moments that adorn similar inspirational stories -- some dictated by the history around Albert and his relationship with his reckless-but-confident brother Edward (Guy Pearce), others by the script's well-worn structure -- The King's Speech strives for a dignified balance between cordiality and emotional zeal, and it achieves as such with every meticulously-crafted scene. What comes out of this biopic fits the very mold of rousing likability while adhering to its historical focus, much like John Adams, inching towards the final scene that befit the film's title: George VI's essential address to the public at the start of WWII. The peaks and valleys that Tom Hooper orchestrate all lead to that moment, and it's quite the crowd-pleasing payoff to Bertie's tongue-tied ascension -- a climax that, though obviously engineered to spark that motivating stir, still achieves its aims without trying too hard to do so.

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