Costume-dramas aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and I’d probably be hard-pressed to find a bunch of university students clambering to see a picture about some Prince-or-another that had a hard time of it back in the 1930’s trying to overcome an unwelcome speech impediment.
Fortunately that quick summary doesn’t nearly do justice to The King’s Speech, the latest period piece from the British film industry that sidesteps all the stuffy, dreary conventions of historical-drama for something more alive, passionate and energetic; something that keeps us from admiring the lavish sets and costume (detailed and commendable as they are) and instead allows us to invest our emotions in these characters who, far up the social-ladder as they may be, turn out to be just as human as you and me.
The film opens in England, 1925. Colin Firth plays Prince Albert (or ‘Bertie’, as his family refer to him), son of King George V, who is required to make his first public address to the nation on broadcast radio at the opening of the British Empire Exhibition. As you might have guessed, it fails dismally.
Albert has been seen by a number of speech therapists, but none of them appear to have had any effect; his stammer is worse than ever. His caring and sympathetic wife (a sorely underused Helena Bonham Carter) remains loyally at his side, but his father is snappy and impatient, all too aware of how important his son may be to the future stability of the country.
Then along comes Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian speech therapist who utilises some rather ‘unorthodox’ techniques to help his patients muster a degree of control over their speaking difficulties. Albert is reluctant at first, and hesitant for a long time after; but already I’m ruining it, because observing how their professional relationship evolves into a deep, intimate friendship is one of the film’s highlights.
Director Tom Hooper keeps the sentimentality in check and instead offers a realistic, often surprisingly funny look at how two very different people can work together in the aim of a single goal, and eventually reach a mutual understanding that transcends social barriers.
Rush gets the lions-share of witty lines and delivers them spot-on, but the film is certainly a showcase for Firth, who sheds the dull Mr. Darcy typecast we were getting sick of and immerses himself in this shell of a man; confused, frustrated and inwardly tormented by both his stammer and the imminent prospect of becoming King in wartime England.
You may think it sounds clichéd and routine, or perhaps overtly ‘royalist’, but the film isn’t attempting a genre-bending mind-fuck or claiming to transform the landscape of cinema; it just wants to tell its tale honestly – but not without zeal and spirit. Allow yourself to be swept up in its majesty and The King’s Speech proves a thoroughly engaging experience; the increasing tension toward the films climax is indeed almost unbearable, not because you fear Albert will fail, but because – like the ensemble of surrounding characters – you want him to succeed.
Films are better when they are content to be what they are, and what you get here is a touching, humorous and ultimately rousing drama about a man who must overcome a physical impediment simply so he can get on with life – and manages to find a true friend along the way. Definitely worth talking about.