For Albert "Bertie" Frederick Arthur George, the Duke of York who would become Great Britain's King George VI just prior to the start of World War II, the act of speaking was a death struggle between him and the words he was trying to say. Crippled by a stammer for as long as he could remember – the result of a brutal royal family upbringing that included forced right-handedness, leg splints, and nothing more than a "daily viewing" with his parents – Bertie could not get through a sentence without a Herculean effort to subdue the syllables that refused to cooperate.
When you are the Duke of York, second in line for the throne, one can see how this would be a serious problem. As his wife puts it with impeccable English understatement in Tom Hooper's The King's Speech, "his job requires a bit of public speaking." Every speech doctor in the realm has had a go, to no avail. Bertie's ready to give up, but the wife finds one last hope: an unconventional therapist in a seedy part of town who seems, somehow, to have a clear view of the mental blocks and hang-ups that make up Bertie's impediment.
The therapist, Lionel Logue, is played by Geoffrey Rush at his most Geoffrey Rush-ish – quick-witted, hyperarticulate, and fearless. He insists on calling His Royal Highness Bertie, and insists on seeing him every day. Bertie (Colin Firth)– repressed, exhausted, and weighed down by the burdens of his position – is deeply skeptical, but Logue believes in him, and he comes around after Logue gets him to read Hamlet's soliloquy with perfect, uninterrupted diction by blasting music into headphones so that Bertie can't hear his own voice. Together, the two begin to chip away at the problem, and ultimately form a bond. Meanwhile, Bertie ascends to the throne, where he is told his job is to "consult and be advised."
The King's Speech is essentially a recontextualized iteration of the underdog sports movie, complete with an unconventional coach, a training montage, a big game, and even the scene where someone on the rival team exposes a secret that angers the players. The film hews so closely to this formula that it's hard to work up any real enthusiasm for it. It broaches some serious issues, most notably the plight of a good man forced into a difficult task for which he is terribly ill-prepared, but the neat, predictable structure tends to trivialize them.
Still, The King's Speech skillfully executes a familiar plot – and the plot itself, it should be said, is nothing to sneeze at. The mechanics of the way Bertie and Logue attack the former's elocution problem are entertaining and often very funny. Rush and Firth are great fun together, Rush's confident Australian irreverence a perfect foil for Firth's aristocratic, prim-and-proper repression. Tom Hooper (The Damned United) has a nicely off-kilter visual style; he likes wide shots in front of bright, surreally colorful backdrops, and rarely puts his characters in the center of the frame. One rehearsal scene late in the film is a delirious masterpiece, a symphony of frustration, cursing, yelling, and bursting into song.
Firth will get a lot of awards attention for this, though it almost seems too easy: if there's a faster track to a surefire Oscar nomination than playing a monarch with a speech impediment, I'd like to know about it. That's probably unfair, since his work in The King's Speech really is quite good, his performance a restrained simmer punctuated by bursts of rage and agony. Firth, who made his name in the States as the slightly foppish love interest in the likes of Love Actually and Bridget Jones' Diary, has, with this and his Oscar-nominated turn in A Single Man, shown a facility for playing fundamentally decent men attempting to shoulder impossible burdens.
But the highlight of movie is a near-cameo appearance by Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill. Growling, glowering, and chewing the scenery, Spall was apparently imported from a gutsier, more colorful film. When he's on the screen, The King's Speech briefly seems like more than the perfectly acceptable award-season crowdpleaser that it really is.