The King's Speech tells the true-life story of King George VI of Britain, in the period just prior to and at the beginning of his reign as king. At a time when England and the world looked to the royal family for leadership and strength, the family itself was going through a rather tumultuous period. As the movie opens, King George V's health has taken a downward turn. Meanwhile, the heir to the throne, Edward, is in the midst of an escalating scandal. Edward has taken up with a divorced American woman, and eventually must choose between their forbidden romance and the crown. If Edward ends up choosing the American, that would leave his brother George as new heir and rightful king. George VI, in many ways, has all the tools to be a good king. He's smart, well-liked, a devoted family man, and has a healthy respect for the traditions and responsibility that go along with royalty. However, he has one potentially-crippling problem: he is a stutterer. George can barely get a sentance out without stammering and tripping over his own words. Considering that one of his primary jobs as king - particularly at a time when England is on the brink of world war - would be to address and inspire the nation, this is, of course, a pretty substantial issue. While George has mostly resigned himself to accepting his stammer as unfixable, his wife - the future Queen Elizabeth - is determined to fight it. She ventures out into the city on her own, and finds a noted - but decidedly working class - speech therapist named Lionel Logue. George is reluctant to see Logue at first, but eventually he begins a series of therapy sessions at Logue's office. Logue - an eccentric but effective coach - uses all the tricks he can think of to help the future king overcome his problem. And it's this relationship - between George and Lionel - that is the heart and soul of the movie. In his sessions with Logue, George is forced out of his comfort zone. He yells, he curses, he vents, he cries. He consorts with the common man. And somehow, against all odds, this quirky speech therapist becomes a king's best friend and most trusted advisor.
So much of the credit for the success of The King's Speech has to go to the two absolutely amazing performances at the center of the movie. As King George VI, Colin Firth just plain owns the part, delivering one of those classic perfomances that will forever be associated with the actor. I was impressed with just how multidimensional the character of George really was. He had self-confidence issues due to his stammer, but he was also a very proud man, and wasn't afraid to remind someone like Logue of his royal status when push came to shove. But there's also a vulnerability to George that is really fascinating. It's hard to feel sorry for someone born into royalty, but George's repressed emotions and family drama make you realize that sometimes, it is *not* good to be the king. At the same time, you can't help but root for George, despite his flaws. Part of you roots for him because he does have that ability to open himself up to someone like Logue. Even if takes him a while, the fact that he eventually considers Logue a confidante and an equal shows the potential of George to be a truly different kind of king - a man of the people. And part of you roots for George simply because it's clear that his country is rooting for him as well. As the threat of war loomed, as air-raid sirens began to ring out over London, the people wanted their king to be a symbol of strength and hope - and so to do we.
Firth is fantastic, but equally great is Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue. Logue is like that slightly crazy high-school teacher who pushes you to do better out of a genuine interest in helping you grow and succeed - and Rush imbues Logue with an overflow of charm and wit. But once again, Logue is a remarkably fleshed-out character. The easy route would be to have Logue just be a cartoonishly flippant guy who laughs in the face of the king and has no regard for the crown. But that's not who Logue is. Yes, he tries to treat George like an equal, like just another patient. But we also see quieter moments where Lionel lets his guard down and seems truly in awe of the fact that he's treating royalty. Rush nails this part, and he's a pleasure to watch throughout the film.
Meanwhile, so many of the supporting roles are filled by absolutely top-notch actors. Michael Gambon as King George V? Badass. Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill? Extremely funny and entertaining. Guy Pierce as the slightly dim, slightly mad, hopelessly lovestruck Edward? One of Pierce's best performances in a long while, the kind that made me remember how great of an actor he can be in the right role. One final standout to me was unquestionably Helena Bonham Carter as George's wife, Queen Elizabeth. Carter is somehow still underrated despite proving time and again that she's the real deal. I thought she was great as the Queen - aristocratic but doggedly determined and loyal to her husband, wryly humorous and likable but also prim and proper. I thought Carter and Firth had a nice chemistry as well - you could sense that, somehow, the two managed to really care for each other despite the crazy circumstances of their day-to-day lives.
David Seidler's screenplay is full of a lot of wit and wisdom, and while some of the humor is, well, a bit been-there, done-that (oh, aren't the differences between royals and common folk hilarious!), he does, as I've said, make these characters remarkably well-rounded and full of life. Director Tom Hooper gives the film a very classical, non-flashy look, which isn't going to blow anyone away, but is appropriate given the tone and subject matter. As a whole, there isn't a lot in The King's Speech that screams "2010." The movie may as well have been made in 1950. But sometimes, a straight-up, old-school story that feels inspirational - and maybe even a little educational - is just what the doctor ordered. Like I said, this feels like a movie that's good for you, that teaches you a little something and may even have you reading up on your history afterwards, to get a little more of the context surrounding this story. The historical backdrop to the film is very interesting, and it's certainly thought-provoking to see the royal family at a time when they were transitioning from true leaders of the realm to the mere figureheads / tabloid fodder that they are today. At the same time, the dynamite performances from Firth, Rush, Bonham-Carter, and the rest of the cast make this much more than dry historical fiction. There is also a great story of unlikely friendship that lies at the movie's core.
My Grade: A-