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Integrity and Impediments:

The King’s Speech
Starring Colin Firth, Guy Pearce, Geoffrey Rush


WORDS, WORDS, WORDS: Colin Firth plays King George VI and Helena Bonham Carter as his wife in “The King’s Speech.” Courtesy photo.

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Every year there seems to be a charming British import that wows critics and wins over American audiences. By default, this year’s entry is “The King’s Speech,” a very dry character piece about the impediment suffered by King George VI (Colin Firth), and the struggle he has not only with public speaking, but with the heavy crown he will soon wear.

Colin Firth is a brilliant actor, but he’s not the kind of scene-stealing, high-adrenaline type of performer, dominating every on-screen moment. In fact, Firth is quite the opposite. Quiet and understated, his performances are often like a slow burn. His portrayal of King George is at arm’s reach. Cold and brittle, with only momentary glimpses into the man beneath the regal veneer.

His brother, Edward (Guy Pearce), referred to as “David” in the film, is slated to take the crown. Though a better persona and presence, Edward’s world contains the kind of tabloid fodder that makes life in the public eye difficult. George VI is something different: a man of great integrity and honor. “Bertie” (as he was called by his family) possessed the kind of strength and humility lacking in many men of his ilk. His wife (Helena Bonham Carter) tries to help him with his stammer by enlisting an unconventional doctor, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).

Lionel is a very matter-of-fact man—the exact opposite of his student, the future King of England. His nonchalant demeanor and personal eccentricities are not something Bertie is often forced to tolerate. Lionel is self-trained, forced to try and help shell-shocked soldiers from WWI find their voice. Bertie is reluctant to embrace Lionel’s methods. But as his brother David seems intent to abdicate the throne, Bertie realizes that his stammer and aversion to public speaking is becoming not just a personal matter but a matter of national pride.

The movie is built on the relationship between Bertie and Lionel. Bertie struggles with opening up to Lionel and instead focuses on more mechanical techniques to cure his affliction. The real cause runs much deeper. Feelings of isolation, abuses he suffered as a child, and the kind of stiff-upper-lip mentality employed by his father left him fractured. These issues are not only troubling for his therapy but also for his role as King. When he inevitably takes the crown, he and Lionel work endlessly to deal with four or five simple sentences. Then, a real confrontation arises. Hitler invades Poland, the nation is at war, and in a time of crisis, the people of the British Commonwealth look to their leaders for guidance. Now, there is more at stake than pride. Bertie, now King George VI, must not only speak to his people but inspire them.

“The King’s Speech” is an unconventional film—a story of pride and mining the strength to find a voice. Colin Firth does a fantastic job of realizing his character. His portrayal is spot-on, finding the right tone. The struggle is making such a cold, unemotional person so likable. For over half the picture, he’s an out-of-sorts man of privilege who treats Lionel like a second-class citizen. Eventually, he realizes that he shares much in common with the “simple” people he knows nothing of. What he understands is their fear.

During WWII King George VI’s speeches were vital to a nation desperate for unity and hope at a time of uncertainty. For a Briton this kind of story is the stuff of national pride. As a non-Briton, I still managed to enjoy the characters and the fantastic performances. In the end I was left a little limp with the conclusion. When King George delivers his “call to war” speech, it was an accomplishment. Yet, it felt kind of flat. The words were well chosen, and in spite of a lifelong handicap, he spoke it well. Emotionally, it wasn’t quite the rousing call to arms one would expect in a major motion picture. We get that moment, earlier in the film, where Lionel questions Bertie’s right to the throne. We get anger, hubris and the kind of emotion one would expect from a king.

Other than a few minor issues I had with pacing, “The King’s Speech” still ends up being one of the best films of 2010. A viable award contender, especially for Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, who do a wonderful job of playing educational adversaries who eventually become lifelong friends. Like a lot of British imports, there’s a high level of gloss. The sets and production design are glorious. The wardrobe harkens back to an age where people actually cared how they look when they left the house—not like the slobs we see walking the street today in Ugg boots and pajama bottoms. Christ, I could spend an entire column just on that.

“The King’s Speech” is a wonderfully refined effort. Much like “King George VI,” it’s a little stiff and has trouble expressing itself emotionally, but eventually it becomes rather likable.

The King’s Speech | Movie Trailer | Review

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