'The King's Speech' prevails with nary a stutter

Courtesy of Weinstein Company
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BY EMILY BOUDREAU
Daily Arts Writer
Published January 5, 2011

December is a dreary month, and this year in particular it’s packed with dark movies, like a gritty Western and the story of a rather sinister ballerina. However, “The King’s Speech” shines through the gloom with its outstanding cast and smart sense of humor.

"The King's Speech"


At the Michigan
The Weinstein Company

Despite the cheery veneer of the film, the plot’s setup is rooted in the tension of 1930s Britain. As the threat of war grew with the specter of Adolf Hitler looming in Germany, the British people looked to the voices of their leaders to find comfort and strength. But in comparison to the reassuring charisma of future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, its king stuttered — literally. “The King’s Speech” examines the relationship between King George VI (Colin Firth, “A Single Man”) and his speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffery Rush, “Pirates of the Caribbean”).

As a historical film, the subject that director Tom Hooper (“The Damned United”) wrestles with is ambitious — a nation on the brink of war, the scandalous abdication of King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce, “The Road”), class differences in a time of turmoil — but he pulls it off. The characters do not seem like blurry, two-dimensional photographs in a Ken Burns documentary. Instead, they’re lively and witty. Firth in particular is wonderful; his days spent combating Hugh Grant in romantic comedies are long over.

But Firth’s performance, outstanding as it is, hardly drives the movie. It's the interactions between Firth and Rush that make the film compelling. The correction of a speech impediment hardly seems the stuff of historical significance, let alone engaging material for a movie. However, history can be made and felt in the interactions between people, and “The King’s Speech” shows not only the shaping of a nation’s figurehead but the evolution of a friendship between two remarkable people. It’s not just about a king shouting obscenities and vowel sounds out the window to cure a stammer, but how one man in a dingy office gave a royal stutterer a voice when the British subjects needed it the most.

Above all, “The King’s Speech” is filled with clever humor — whether it’s the quick banter between the King and Logue or Helena Bonham Carter (“Alice in Wonderland”) as Queen Elizabeth sitting on the King’s chest while he practices his breathing exercises, there’s never a dull moment. Hooper creates a world in the movie that is warm and wonderful to witness.

But perhaps in Hooper's attempt to make the movie a happy one — to energize and uplift a darker period in history — something is lost. Hooper is careful to acknowledge the darker side of the royal family, mentioning King George’s epileptic brother, the jealousy within the family and George’s harsh upbringing. However, these references are easy to miss and loom only briefly, and they don’t carry the same force as the humor in the film.

Not all historical films have to be dark and carry an overbearing message about morality. “The King’s Speech” still remains a powerful story about courage in threatening times.