The King's Speech -- Film Review

A riveting, intimate account at how a British king triumphed over a speech impediment with the help of an unorthodox speech coach.

Lately, British filmmakers have zeroed in on personal moments and back stories that go a long way in not only humanizing their royal family but also creating a much greater awareness of the trials and difficulties faced by those in such "exalted" positions.

It perhaps started with The Queen, continued with Young Victoria and now achieves the most intimate glimpse inside the royal camp to date with The King's Speech.

Each of these films features a mesmerizing central performance. Although Speech requires shared billing, with no disrespect to Geoffrey Rush's spot-on work here, Colin Firth, following up on his Oscar-nominated role in A Single Man, now can claim a place among Britain's finest film actors with his performance as the man who became King George VI.

The film is a sure winner in the British Isles and many former colonies. How its most rebellious and historically challenged colony will react when the Weinstein Co. releases the film domestically Nov. 24 is hard to gauge. Perhaps only decent box office can be anticipated.

The thing about Bertie, as George V's second son was called by the family, is that he never is going to be king. A good thing too because he suffers from a terrible stammer and what nowadays would be called low self-esteem. Then history conspires against him.

But this is getting ahead of the story, ably written by David Seidler and directed by Tom Hooper. While dad (Michael Gambon) remains on his throne and his elder brother, David (Guy Pearce), gadding about as an international playboy, Bertie (Firth) has to give a speech. He looks like he is about to attend his own execution, and words stick in his throat so badly that what comes out is unintelligible.

His wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), seeks out speech therapists but only disaster results. Then she stumbles onto Lionel Logue (Rush).

The movie establishes him as an eccentric, lower-class and somewhat ignoble version of Henry Higgins. He and his family live in a large, oddly wallpapered flat that contains only a fraction of the furniture necessary to fill it. What's worse, he's Australian and a failed ham actor specializing in eloquent though thoroughly bad Shakespeare. Yet even when he realizes a royal is summoning him, he insists that it's "his castle, his rules": The royal must take his lessons in Lionel's home.

Thus the movie sets up an Odd Couple dynamic that, like the famous Neil Simon play/movie/TV series, measures out comedy and drama in nearly even doses. Bertie and Lionel -- the therapist insists on a first-name basis -- discover common ground, quarrel bitterly, share a drink, make a breakthrough, then break off all contact. At the root of Bertie's problem, it gradually emerges, is a wretched childhood, no matter how rich and glorious it might seem to outsiders.

Now comes history's little trick. Brother David eventually becomes Edward VIII; you know, the irresponsible sap who decides he'd rather marry a well-traveled, twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson, than be king of England. Following his brother's abdication, Bertie becomes George VI, which means a lot of speech giving -- especially on the eve of World War II.

The movie lets everything build to George VI's first wartime speech. In the early days of the wireless -- long before television, of course -- this means a king can stand alone in a room with only a microphone and speech coach to get him through those three minutes (egged on by Beethoven's mighty Seventh Symphony). It's an understandably moving moment, but the film has nicely paved the way with long therapy sessions, conversations and comic fights between its couple.

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