Review: Firth is royalty, even if ‘King’s Speech’ is a little stiff
December 30, 2010
Is civility enough to sustain a film? The audiences who will embrace “The King’s Speech” – and they are many and literate – will point to it as an example of the kind of movie that should be made more often. By February they may well have the Academy Awards to prove their point. It’s probably useless to argue in the face of such unerring good taste. Yet for some of us, Tom Hooper’s period drama about the stammer of King George VI is exactly the kind of movie we’ve had enough of – complacent middlebrow tosh engineered for maximum awards bling and catering to a nostalgia for the royalty we’ve never actually had to live with.
The movie isn’t badly done, just overdone – a cozy art-house crowd-pleaser coasting on the expectations of its genre. At its heart is another very, very good performance by Colin Firth, one that may win him the Oscar he should have been awarded for last year’s “A Single Man.” As Albert Frederick Arthur George Windsor – Bertie to his family, the Duke of York and eventually George VI to his subjects – Firth is a tormented paradox, a man born to public life who can barely speak in public without strangling on his own words.
“The King’s Speech” opens with the Duke’s 1925 address at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium, a radio talk that proved agonizing for everyone involved. By the time his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) brings him to the tatty London offices of speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), the Duke has thrown in the towel. Knowing his older brother, Edward (Guy Pearce), is in line for the throne, he is settling unhappily into the life of a stuffed royal dummy, seen but never heard. Only the sorrowful squint of Firth’s eyes lets us guess at the fury inside.
If Firth’s performance is many-leveled, Rush carves us another warm and filling slice of ham. He understands that by the movie’s standards, Logue’s an outsider: Australian by birth, middle class by social status, democratic by inclination. He calls the Duke “Bertie” just for the fun of seeing the appalled look on the other man’s face and gets him to limber up with arias of foul language, humanizing the future king and earning the movie an unnecessary R rating.
As structured by screenwriter David Seidler, “The King’s Speech” is essentially “Driving Miss Daisy” with a royalist veneer, a drama about a friendship that crosses social boundaries as it grows and deepens over the years. Rush’s Logue is the playfully wise truth-teller and Firth’s King George the starchy superior who learns to unbend and validate the little people (and by extension the monarchy itself).
The movie’s a bit of a love story, too, with fierce spats between Bertie and Lionel that are followed by pro forma reconciliations. A gloss of light Freudianism roots the Duke’s stutter in his forbidding dad (Michael Gambon as George V) as well as his being “cured” of left-handedness in childhood. Cheap psychology aside, Firth is the main reason to see “The King’s Speech,” since the actor is able at this point in his career to convey so much with such little visible effort. In particular, he makes the Duke’s initial dilemma unexpectedly moving – a second son, he’s a royal without power or function; without a voice – while letting us see both his panic and underlying confidence upon assuming the throne.
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The further “The King’s Speech” moves from its central relationship, though, the stickier it gets. George VI became king, of course, when his brother stepped down in 1936 to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), and the public dramas surrounding the abdication and the oncoming war with Germany are drawn with a thick, stubby pencil. Bonham Carter is extremely likable as the levelheaded future Queen Mum – the actress clearly relishes the vacation from Hogwarts and her husband – and Freya Wilson makes a touching young Elizabeth Windsor, corgis and all.
But Pearce seems unaccountably puffy and distracted as Edward, and the various British MPs and PMs are empty morning coats, no more. Playing Winston Churchill, Timothy Spall gives what has to be called the comedy performance of the year – he’s like Tweedledee without Tweedledum, or a teapot with eyebrows – and while I like Spall enough to hope that was the intention, I fear otherwise.
You’re forgiven if, while watching “The King’s Speech,” you keep flashing back (or forward) to “The Queen,” the 2006 drama that bitingly examined what it means to rule a country without interacting in any genuine way with its people. By contrast, this movie wallows in its royal privileges, and its superficial message is that a little kick in the pants from an Aussie speech therapist is all a king needs to connect with his subjects and lead them stalwartly through World War II (and then lose the colonies, but never mind). Those seeking stronger stuff will have to content themselves with the unsoothable bleakness in the eyes of Firth’s Bertie Windsor. There – and only there – is the tragedy of the king who can finally speak but has nothing terribly profound to say.