In brief: Colin Firth is the Duke of York: Albert Frederick Arthur George (Bertie to his intimates). Bertie is plagued by a severe stammer; after seeing many well-credentialed but ineffectual speech therapists Bertie’s wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) engages unorthodox Aussie Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to cure her husband’s impediment. After an uncertain start the two men become friends and make progress with Bertie’s stammer. However, following the death of his father (Michael Gambon) and the abdication of his brother (Guy Pearce) Bertie is thrust onto the throne unwillingly. Amid growing likelihood of war with Nazi Germany, the pressure builds on Lionel and Bertie to ensure that the British can look to their new king for reassurance.
Firth has been praised to the rafters across the board for his performance, and rightly so. There is much talk of Oscars (clearly he followed Kate Winslet’s ‘play a mental’ advice from Extras – his stammer is utterly believable) and of course he has just picked up a Golden Globe. But the praise shouldn’t be limited to Firth. Co-star Geoffrey Rush is usually your go-to man for big-tent character acting (David Helfgott, Peter Sellers, the Marquis de Sade); his Lionel Logue, while charismatic, is a more reserved and rounded figure – middle-class with a hint of an Aussie accent. Both give typically generous performances, each allowing the other to expand and contract as necessary.
A cast of reliable talents supports them. Helena Bonham Carter – who is quite possibly posher than Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon – is almost literally the manor born. Guy Pearce is creditably effete and feckless as Edward VIII and the lovely Jennifer Ehle shares the screen once again with Colin Firth as Logue’s wife. Derek Jacobi – another notable screen stutterer – has fun as the unctuous Archbishop of Canterbury.
The only real bum note amongst the performances comes from Timothy Spall – an actor who is brilliant in some films (Secrets and Lies) and ludicrously hammy in others (The Sheltering Sky) – as Winston Churchill. Admittedly it is difficult to play Churchill as opposed to impersonating him (Albert Finney is a rare exception), but quite why Churchill is included at all is a mystery – it’s certainly not a historically accurate portrayal and it brings nothing to the story beyond providing a kind of signpost for the historically illiterate.
And while I’m being picky I could also level another minor criticism at the film: its motivation. The film addresses the absurdity of royalty, but not really the legitimacy. As ever with British films about poshoes, the ‘common man’ is depicted as reliably quiescent. Even Logue, who demands and receives a kind of equality from Bertie, remains effectively a wise Jeeves rather than a genuine peer and in the end, we all tug a deferential forelock, even if only from pity rather than fear.
One further criticism, coming from the excellent Guardian Film Weekly podcast is that the film does not feel cinematic; that it could be a BBC Sunday evening drama. I applaud Xan Brooks and Jason Solomons for defying the (slightly bullying) critical consensus, but completely disagree with this argument. The cinematography and, particularly, Alexandre Desplat’s superb score are sweeping and gorgeous and everything that you’d want from a period drama projected onto the big screen. The set design also deserves a nod; I especially enjoyed Logue’s wonderfully shabby den on Harley Street.
The story and script are also top hole: the film is well-paced, the dialogue impeccable and the film has been edited to a perfect length by Tariq Anwar (who is on home territory, having also worked on Revolutionary Road, American Beauty, and The Madness of King George amongst others).
I saw this with the Significant Other in a packed house – in the largest theatre in the cinema on a Tuesday afternoon. The King’s Speech has been an absolute box office smash in the UK and Australia, and will no doubt make respectable money in the US (not least because (a) the yanks lap this sort of thing up, and (b) Miramax are unparalleled when it comes to selling the shit out of Brit-flicks like this). Not that that matters, but it is gratifying to see a well-crafted and entertaining piece of cinematic art getting the popularity it deserves.