Movie Review: The King's Speech
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Despite their grand titles, enormous responsibilities and the weight of history, world leaders are just human beings at the end of the day.
They are proud. They are funny. They are spouses and parents. They are flawed.
It's refreshing to see a historical drama avoid grand gestures and sweeping melodrama in favor of smaller more intimate stories. Such is the case with director Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech," which opens Saturday.
Standing in the bowels of Wembley Stadium in 1925, Prince Albert, the Duke of York (Colin Firth), stares blankly ahead as he prepares to enter the arena and address the thousands in attendance at the British Empire Exhibition. There are also the countless thousands who will be listening over the airwaves, as the prince addresses the nation via the recent invention of wireless radio.
The pallor on his face is so stark you can almost see the blue-blooded veins. You can feel the moisture on his palms. He is not excited. He is horrified. He is not a heavyweight boxer preparing his entrance to the ring. He is a dead man walking.
As he stiffly approaches the massive microphone stand, which is shot in intense close-up like many of the faces in Hooper's film, the device looms like a noose. He has simply to put his head through it and be done with it.
His wife, the Duchess of York (Helena Bonham Carter), looks on with tender concern. A red light flicks on. The world is listening. Albert attempts to speak. And freezes. He is unable to vocalize his thoughts.
Murmurs gently roll through the stadium. The prince may be clothed, but he is completely naked. His greatest vulnerability, his massive stutter, has been laid bare for the world to hear.
The film leaps forward to 1934, and it is clear that Albert has not overcome his impediment. His wife brings forth an endless line of speech therapists, but none has succeeded.
Frustrated and annoyed, Albert declares that he will suffer no more indignation and pleads with his wife to end the search for a cure. But the woman who would become known worldwide simply as the Queen Mother makes a last-ditch effort.
She approaches Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian living in England, who is completely unaware of his prospective client's identity. When Logue finally meets with the prince, he makes it clear that in his "castle," the pair will play by his rules.
After much reluctance, Albert relents and begins a furtive relationship with the failed actor-turned-therapist. Unlike other professionals in the field, Logue has no interest in addressing the physical causes of the stuttering. Undaunted by the king's status (he insists on calling him by his familial nickname, "Bertie"), Logue tries emotional excavation to get to the root of the problem. Through their work together, the low-status Logue brings a confidence and peace to a prince who had never learned to let go of the scars of his childhood. The amusing and at times touching therapy sessions take on the feeling of training montages in a boxing film, edged with the sarcastic barbs of a buddy flick.
As Albert's ne'er-do-well older brother, Edward (Guy Pearce), abdicates the throne he inherited from King George V to pursue marriage with an American socialite, the stuttering prince is once again thrown into the spotlight against his will.
With his father dead, his brother a mild disgrace and his kingdom on the verge of war, Albert is forced, quite literally, to find his voice and lead his people. A dozen years after his failure at Wembley, with a nervous kingdom in search of guidance and assurance, Albert, the newly crowned King George VI, once again approaches the wireless to address the world. And despite his progress, the king's reticence is still palpable, as the audience breathlessly anticipates each coming syllable. (Of course, even if he does complete the address flawlessly, there is still the matter of World War II, which makes the whole ordeal feel slightly like a Pyrrhic victory.)
Despite the scale of the historical context, Hooper eschews grand gestures in favor of playing the story as a small personal tale about overcoming fears and anxieties to arrive at a place of courage and comfort in one's skin.
Firth and Rush carry the movie and bring a warm humanity to what in lesser hands could have become a pap piece of ornate Oscar bait. They, like the two men they portray, are a study in contrasts. Firth as the dignified king is corseted by centuries of royal tradition, while Rush is buoyed by an ebullient lack of self-consciousness. Both actors will undoubtedly and deservedly get recognition in the coming awards season for their depiction of this friendship that allowed both men to reveal themselves completely to one another.