The year’s best movie is a multi-layered story centered upon a stuttering aristocrat. Bertie (Colin Firth, excellent as always) is a royal prince in line to become King George something or other of England, and, whether you know the history or not, his transformation is an agonizing, involving and, quite convincingly, stirring tale of an heir who would be king who must first make himself a man.
Critics appear to have it in for this movie, and, in another season of dreary malcontents, it isn’t hard to see why, though I admit I was not prepared to like this film as much as I do. Bertie, ridiculed by his family, and humiliated in an opening scene before his country, must ultimately choose between being selfless or being selfish. To pull it off and learn how to speak without stammering, an impediment which plagues him despite numerous attempts to fix it, he will have to work on the downlow with an unconventional Australian named Lionel (Geoffrey Rush, in a career best performance) who is hardly on the Buckingham Palace guest list. Not only must Bertie master Lionel’s unusual techniques, given that Bertie’s older brother, a thrill-seeking hedonist (Guy Pearce), has the hots for a trollop from Baltimore, the prince may also have to reject manners, tradition and religion, all while a flawless orator is rising as an imminent threat with enthusiastic consent of the German people.
The King’s Speech is smaller than it sounds, really, offering a subtle psychological interchange between two men who learn about themselves as they learn about one another. Bertie’s stutter is no mere hiccup; it is deeply rooted, caused by a serious breach of proper parenting during his childhood, fully engulfing his entire train of thought and derailing his self-esteem in a massive wreck every time. But The King’s Speech does not go for cheap, obvious snickers and Bertie knows better than to believe for one second that his life is that of a prince in a fairy tale, which he gently and lovingly suggests to his daughters, Margaret and Elizabeth, as he tells the girls a story.
“Do you know any jokes?” Lionel asks upon Bertie’s first visit to his study chamber, a bright, cheerful place filled with love, natural light and the sound of music and children’s laughter. Bertie, who has resisted and accepted the instructor’s unyielding terms, haltingly deadpans: “timing isn’t my strong suit.” And so it goes, the haughty, stammering prince and his grandiose teacher, struggling to understand the nature of the handicap, which Lionel regards as entirely fixable through methods of distraction, introspection, and persistent efforts and discipline. The two men are husbands and fathers, and their wives (Helena Bonham Carter as the prince’s wife and Jennifer Ehle as Lionel’s wife), who are integrally not incidentally a part of their stories, are wise, intelligent women who know how to love and support two men of extraordinary if untapped abilities.
Lionel takes being seen as peculiar as a compliment, refusing to be impressed by monarchy, status, and prestige and doubting nearly every one of the prince’s dismissive assertions and rationalizations even as he faces the fact that he’s too grand for his own good. Bertie struggles to see himself as he is, too, not as he is seen by others, a tall order for a middle-aged prince accustomed to accepting his second-rate status in a family of tyrants. With a dreadfully miscast actor as Winston Churchill warning that Nazi Germany might destroy the British empire, with the world facing a choice between “the jackboots and the proletarian abyss”, the quirky, secret friendship and working partnership may turn out to be important to the nation’s existence.
Here, The King’s Speech, which is written by the man who wrote Tucker: The Man and His Dream (David Seidler) and directed by the man who directed John Adams (Tom Hooper) for television, is magnificent, summoning the power of cinema with moving images, Nazi speeches, and the word spirit to symbolize the British people, who would rise to defy a dictatorship, in tidy angles and frames, set to Alexandre Desplat‘s score, and the sudden seriousness of “the primitive doctrine that might is right”. Much more than a little film about finding one’s voice, with strong supporting performances all around, including Derek Jacobi’s as the archbishop, The King’s Speech has something to say about how actually using it to speak up may help to save civilization.