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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Firth proves eloquent in ‘The King’s Speech’

Published: February 4, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

When I arrived at the movies last weekend with the intention of finally seeing director Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech,” I wasn’t sure what to expect. Sure, the film had been heaped with praise and had just netted itself 12 Oscar nominations, but it also seemed like pure “Oscar bait”—a prestige film made with the sole intention of receiving as much attention from the Oscars as possible.

Happily, the film allayed any misgivings I might have had. “The King’s Speech” isn’t the sentimental ode to Oscar I had feared; instead, it’s a well-acted, slickly-made production that also happens to be enjoyable to watch.

The year is 1935 and the world is in crisis thanks to a stagnant economy and the rise of fascism on the European continent. British citizens seek comfort in their ancient monarchy, but even that happens to be in a state of tumult. King George V (Michael Gambon) is quickly approaching the end of his life, and his eldest son, Edward (Guy Pearce), is more interested in love than in his country. The royal family thus turns to Prince Albert (Colin Firth)—the future George VI—to represent publicly the monarchy’s future.

Unfortunately, there’s one major problem: Albert suffers from a debilitating stutter that makes even the prospect of public speaking terrifying. With some gentle prodding by his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), he begins consulting Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist with unorthodox methods. Increasing importance is placed on Albert’s ability to calm his people’s fears when his brother makes the decision to abdicate the throne and war with Germany grows ever nearer. It is against this backdrop that Logue and Albert develop a strange friendship, Albert’s first with a commoner.

“The King’s Speech” follows a story—that of a man trying to literally and figuratively find his voice—that could be easily sentimentalized and made saccharine. Thanks to a well-crafted screenplay, as well as Hooper’s direction, it largely avoids the pitfalls that afflict most films to which the adjectives “heartwarming” and “inspiring” can be affixed. One of the few exceptions is a groan-inducing scene in which Firth’s character proclaims: “I have a voice!” This misstep simply exemplifies how well the film otherwise approaches its subject.

As George VI, Firth gives one of the strongest performances of his career. Though once best-known for his supporting turns in films ranging from “The English Patient” to “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” he has recently reached new heights, first with his incredibly dignified performance in last year’s “A Single Man” and now in “The King’s Speech.” His George is someone who can be frustratingly stubborn, yet he never loses our sympathy. Most importantly, he never feels anything less than three-dimensional.

Rush, meanwhile, gives one of the most restrained performances of his career as the speech therapist with a profound effect on the king. Many of Rush’s previous characters have been larger than life, so it’s refreshing to see him tone things down. His character’s story really depends on this, as Lionel must grapple with his own ordinariness (he once aspired to be a Shakespearian actor) while helping the king overcome his own fears of mediocrity.

Bonham Carter’s Elizabeth lacks an arc of her own, but she’s always a soothing presence whenever she appears. Though not the focus of the film, she and Firth construct a relationship that feels both lived-in and honest.

Hooper is smart enough to allow these three actors to command his audience’s attention—one of the film’s trademarks, for instance, is its use of off-center shots of individuals alone onscreen—but he’s also a gifted visual storyteller. He has crafted a film that is very focused, never introducing any elements that don’t support its central themes.

Outside of its primary acting trio, after all, the film derives a large part of its impact from its universal story, that of asking help from others even when it pains us most. Though simple, Hooper complicates it and sets it against a background that is fascinating historically. It’s easy to be reductive when reading the film—you could potentially summarize it as a film about how hard it is to be a king or about how, yes, commoners are people, too!—but it really transcends the specifics of its own milieu.

So yes, “The King’s Speech” contains many of the elements favored by Oscar (royalty, a crippling condition and British accents), but it’s more than that. I don’t know if I would personally deem the film the best of its year, as the Academy Awards appear poised to do, but it’s definitely deserving of the praise it’s received.