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The King’s Speech

Reluctant Prince Becomes King

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Directed by Tom Hooper (The Damn United, Red Dust), The King’s Speech has all the qualities of an Oscar-worthy film: it’s centered on a real-life person, a king no less (the Academy loves both), battling a debilitating speech impediment (catnip for Oscar voters), historical/period setting (production and art design nominations are practically a given), and well-executed performances.

The King’s Speech opens more than a decade before Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth) and second in line to the English throne then held by his father, George V (Michael Gambon), became George VI. A lifelong stutterer, Prince Albert struggles to give the opening speech of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium in London. As broken words echo through the stadium, the attendees begin to look away in shame (and maybe disgust). Publicly humiliated, Prince Albert flees to the comfort of his wife, the future Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter).

After the latest in what was probably a long series of attempts to correct his speech defect, Prince Albert’s all-but-ready to give up. Elizabeth, however, refuses to accept defeat and turns to an unorthodox, Australian-born speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), for help. Logue operates his practice out of a shabby, rundown office in a shabby, rundown building. At their first meeting, Logue outlines his approach to alleviating, if not curing, Prince Albert’s stammer, an approach that involves psychological therapy. Prince Albert refuses to discuss his personal life and past, setting up the central conflict that comes to define their relationship, culminating in George VI’s delivery of a speech to the British public on the eve of the Second World War.

Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler (Soraya, The King and I, Quest for Camelot) structure The King’s Speech like a sports drama, complete with training montages, and an early, unsuccessful attempt to give a public speech, a necessary setback that helps to set up the climactic call-to-arms speech.

The film succeeds on several, interrelated levels: as a character study of George VI, Logue, and Edward VIII; as a period drama of England between the first and second world wars; an exploration of the 1936 British constitutional crisis; and ultimately, illuminating and humanizing George VI and the royal family. George VI emerges as a reluctant prince (and later king), willing to live his life as the second son and second in line to the throne.

Of course, The King’s Speech also serves as a platform for Firth, Rush, and the supporting cast to show audiences (and the Academy) what they can do with complex, complicated characters. Firth, a definite lock for an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (and likely winner based on last year’s Oscar-nominated performance in A Single Man), makes his once-and-future-king a flawed man, as quick to anger as he’s slow to speak, reluctant to expose himself publicly or privately, and burdened by the demands of a public life as a prince and king.

As Logue, Rush does more with more. As depicted in The King’s Speech, Logue was a frustrated amateur actor prone to theatrical gestures, and a willful disregard for rules and court etiquette. Strong supporting turns by Helena Bonham-Carter, the “queen” of period dramas, and Derek Jacobi as the manipulative Archbishop Cosmo Lang, along with the usual attention to period detail, makes The King’s Speech compulsively watchable for its two-hour running time.