After his brother abdicates, George, aka 'Bertie,' (Colin Firth) reluctantly assumes the throne. Plagued by a dreaded stutter and considered unfit to be king, Bertie engages the help of an unorthodox speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Through a set of unexpected techniques, and as a result of an unlikely friendship, Bertie is able to find his voice and boldly lead the country through war.
On the face of it, the premise sounds highly unappealing: Obscure, self-taught Australian speech therapist helps the King of England to overcome a speech impediment and, in the process, regain his self-esteem after a damaged childhood.
Yet The King’s Speech is magnificent cinema, alternately funny, touching and stirring, thanks to star turns by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, a riveting screenplay and immaculate direction, costuming and set decoration.
Firth and Rush have won a bunch of critics’ awards for best actor and supporting actor respectively, as has David Seidler’s original screenplay, and if there’s any justice at least one or two will figure prominently when the Academy Awards are handed out in February.
The movie opens in 1925 as Firth’s Duke of York, Albert Frederick Arthur George, popularly known as 'Bertie," is asked to deliver a speech to the BBC at Wembley Stadium. Frustration and humiliation etched on his face, he can barely utter a few halting words before he’s defeated by a chronic stutter.
His devoted wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) seeks the help of a Harley Street speech therapist, the Antipodean Lionel Logue (Rush), disguising her identity as 'Mrs Johnson." Her husband initially dismisses the idea out of hand but reluctantly turns up. Their first encounter is hilarious. The Duke insists on being addressed as 'Your Royal Highness," Lionel prefers 'Bertie." Not in the least overawed by the Royal presence, the wry, irreverent Aussie forbids him to smoke and demands to be called 'Lionel," declaring," My castle, my rules."
'I stammer, no one can fix it," he responds. 'I don’t think this is for me." He changes his mind after Lionel gives him a recording of Bertie reciting Shakespeare perfectly well over the sound of music.
The focus then switches to the imperious but ailing King George V (a marvellous cameo from Michael Gambon), who is intolerant of Bertie’s speech impediment and increasingly despairing of his elder son David’s relationship with the twice-married American Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).
After George V dies, David (Guy Pearce, impressive) ascends the throne as Edward VIII and cries in his mother’s arms, not for his father but for the looming crisis he faces with his paramour Wallis.
Bertie regularly sees Lionel and soon opens up about his miserable childhood, being abused by a nanny and haunted by memories of his epileptic brother Johnny, whose death at the age of 13 was, he admits, 'hidden from view."
Yes folks, we have a true bromance between the Royal and the commoner as Bertie confides to his wife that Lionel is the first 'ordinary person" he’s ever spoken to.
As the Hitler-appeasing Edward VIII prepares to abdicate to marry Simpson, Bertie and Lionel have a blazing row as the latter urges the former to do his duty and accept the crown, a wonderful scene with both thespians in full flight.
Thereafter Bertie/King George VI faces two further crises, engendering both pathos and highly-charged drama, with Lionel at his side.
The direction by Tom Hooper is flawless, only the British filmmaker’s third feature following The Damned United and little-seen Red Dust and a substantial body of TV work including the miniseries John Adams and Elizabeth 1.
Bonham Carter is delightful as the shrewd, warm, fun-loving Elizabeth, Derek Jacobi excels as the oft-frustrated Archbishop of Canterbury but Timothy Spall strikes an off-note as a harrumphing Winston Churchill.
Full of wit, grace and emotion, it’s one of the best films to lift the lid on the machinations of the Royal court, a revealing look at a King whose stutter was merely a symbol of a man who was deeply uncomfortable about his destiny, and the upstart Aussie who helped him to find his own voice in more ways than one, and to take his place in history.
Watch 'The King's Speech'
Friday 19 November, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies / Streaming after at SBS On Demand
Genre: Drama, History
Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Jennifer Ehle