(No longer in theaters)
The Weinstein Company
Nov 26, 2010
With his pursed lips and edgy rectitude, Colin Firth is ideally cast as an uptight fellow in serious need of therapy in the middlebrow masterpiece The King’s Speech. The uptight fellow is Albert Frederick Arthur George, better known as King George VI, father of Elizabeth II, and the therapy is for a crippling stammer. But it’s a stammer with strong psychological (not to mention commercial) overtones. The therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), is both a commoner and a foreigner who insists on flouting protocol and addressing his royal client as “Bertie.” He doesn’t want to focus on the larynx or diaphragm. He wants to know when and how the stammer began. He wants to know about childhood traumas. Logue is Australian, but it’s easy to imagine that he’s Austrian—Freud-trained and Jewish—and here to administer an emotional enema, to purge this Über-Wasp of Waspishness. No wonder Harvey Weinstein thinks he has—ding-ding!—the year’s Best Picture.
He just might. The King’s Speech has a cunning, crowd-pleasing shape. It opens in 1925, when its protagonist, now the Duke of York, addresses—or attempts to address—a crowd at Wembley Stadium and can barely get out two words in succession. The newfangled microphone, the wireless radio: These are not his friends. The movie closes a decade and a half later, on the eve of war with Hitler’s Germany, the sky over London speckled with barrage balloons, the nation waiting anxiously for a speech by its king over the airwaves. Have the psychic clots been loosened? Can this man who was shamed into tremulous, childlike obedience by his overbearing father, George V (Michael Gambon)—forced to wear splints to correct his knock-knees and to write with his right hand to “correct” for left-handedness—now project unwavering patriarchal authority? We, along with the king’s subjects, hang on every measured syllable.
The 73-year-old screenwriter, David Seidler, reportedly had a stammer in his youth and read avidly about George VI, but he waited until the king’s wife (a.k.a. the Queen Mother) died, at age 101, before going public with his Oedipal take on George’s journey to (relative) fluency. Seidler and director Tom Hooper (HBO’s John Adams) wisely play the relationship between the king and his therapist as a prickly comedy of manners. Rush wears roomy suits and, opposite Firth in his invisible corset, has a way of looking disheveled even when he’s all spruced up. Plopping himself down on the throne in Westminster, daring the outraged George to have him hauled off to the Tower, Logue is the therapist as court jester. The goal is provocation, to get the king to sputter and then vent and then curse with dismaying fluidity. There is one, final element of suspense: Will lowly Logue lumber back to his Harley Street den, unheralded? Or will King George VI, although possessed of the divine snobbery of kings, be moved to recognize his shabby therapist as a friend?
It’s a prizewinning combination, terribly English and totally Hollywood, and Firth is, once more, uncanny: He evokes, in mid-stammer, existential dread. I do have quibbles, some of them large enough to border on being issues. It’s hard to accept Guy Pearce, who plays King Edward the abdicator, as Firth’s older brother: He looks, acts, and is almost a decade Firth’s junior. Timothy Spall’s Winston Churchill is a splendid impersonation—of Alfred Hitchcock. I’d have treasured even more scenes with Helena Bonham Carter’s Elizabeth (the Queen Mum), that rare blue blood who hasn’t had the life force bred out of her. More seriously, the director’s style is often as constipated as his leading man’s: Hooper cuts back and forth between a character on the far left of the screen and one on the far right as if he’d got his drama degree at Wimbledon.
One last issue: While the address to which The King’s Speech builds was of some symbolic importance (although not as much as George’s decision to keep his family in London, in harm’s way), it seems, I don’t know, wrong to feel so flush and happy and relieved when, after all is said (without stammering) and done, the country is on the brink of blitzkrieg. This is the sort of sleight-of-hand that bolsters the case against Hollywood, which trivializes history for the sake of bogus scenarios of self-realization. It’s also a sleight-of-hand that wins Oscars.