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Review: ‘The King’s Speech’

Oscar Royalty

Above: Colin Firth plays a prince with a stammer and a need for public speaking in "The King's Speech."

Audio

Aired 12/15/10

The critics on the KPBS Film Club of the Air discuss "The King's Speech."

Transcript

Our founding fathers rejected the notion of having a monarchy but America, and especially Hollywood, adores tales of royalty. So prepare for the latest: "The King's Speech" (opening December 17 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas and AMC La Jolla Village Theaters). You can read my review or listen to our KPBS Film Club of the Air discussion.

"The King's Speech" tells the story of Prince Albert (Colin Firth) who unexpectedly went on to become King George VI when his brother Prince Edward chose to marry an American divorcee rather then assume the throne. But for "Bertie" the timing couldn't be worse. In previous centuries, a king could be seen and not heard. But it's the 1930s. England is on the brink of war. And radio makes it impossible for anyone in the public eye or service to avoid speaking live on the air. Bertie has a stammer as well as some confidence issues. So even before he takes over the monarchy, Bertie is terrified by any prospect of speaking in public. Enter an unorthodox speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Bertie only reluctantly agrees to work with this commoner but the result is an unexpected friendship.

Geoffrey Rush plays an unconventional speech therapist in "The King's Speech."

The Weinstein Company

Above: Geoffrey Rush plays an unconventional speech therapist in "The King's Speech."

"The King's Speech" is a film that works in spite of pedestrian direction by Tom Hooper. Hooper is best known for his TV dramas, "John Adams" and "Elizabeth I." He shoots much of "The King's Speech" as if it were a TV drama, relying mostly on tight close ups that play well on the small screen. His only visual innovation is making microphones seem intimidating. The best thing I can say about his direction is that for the most part he stays out of the way of his actors. The film is made by Firth and Rush smartly delivering the clever lines of David Seidler's script. Together this trio creates a surprisingly intimate tale of two people who become unlikely friends. Firth also finds genuine vulnerability in a royal family member who is so unused to discussing his feelings that his emotions have as difficult a time coming out as his words. Firth's performance is amazingly nuanced because his character is introverted and opposed to revealing anything. Rush has a more overtly colorful character handed to him and has fun as the one who brings the prince down to earth.

The growing importance of radio is also central to the story. Without the presence of radio, Bertie might not have felt as terrified about public speaking. After all, addressing a few workers at a factory is not nearly as intimidating as speaking to the entire empire. Add to this that England is on its way to war and you have a situation that would make even a good speaker nervous. The film places one such good speaker – a young Winston Churchill (played by Timothy Spall) – on the periphery of the action but never uses him as well as they could have. The script builds nicely and at a good measured pace. Seidler never rushes his characters. So the audience can enjoy the slowly building friendship between the two men.

Helena Bonham Carter being... well... rather normal in "The King's Speech."

The Weinstein Company

Above: Helena Bonham Carter being... well... rather normal in "The King's Speech."

Two supporting cast members are of note. It's refreshing to see Helena Bonham Carter play such a sweetly normal role after so many wacky Tim Burton parts. She plays Bertie's supportive and quietly persuasive wife. On the other end of the spectrum is Guy Pearce as Prince Edward. Pearce is Australian and he strains so hard to sound "royal" that his whole performance feels artificial.

An official portrait of the real King George VI and Colin Firth as his cinematic incarnation in "The King's Speech."

The Weinstein Company

Above: An official portrait of the real King George VI and Colin Firth as his cinematic incarnation in "The King's Speech."

"The King's Speech" (inexplicable rated R for some language) is Oscar bait of the first order. Firth should have won his best actor Oscar last year for his work in "A Single Man." But the Academy is notorious for playing a game of catch up with its awards. So Firth is more likely to win this year since he's both past due and playing a British royal. But it is hard to resist the charms of the script, and the two lead performances. Plus you get to see Queen Elizabeth as a little girl.

Companion viewing: "The Queen," "The Damned United" (also directed by Hooper), "Young Winston"

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