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Colin Firth is a hard one to hate, thus it’s no surprise that his role as King George VI in “The King’s Speech” is one of the best in theatres right now. Firth is a clear frontrunner for Best Actor in a delightful film that exposes the tension of early 20th Century British politics, adding a splash of humor to make this drink of a film go down smoothly.
Prince Albert (Firth) is the youngest prince of England and he has a speech impediment that hinders his ability to effectively address large crowds (or most crowds for that matter). While his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), is as supportive as possible, always looking for a new speech therapist, the prince grows weary of all the “hopeless” attempts to “fix” him. Elizabeth is eventually referred to Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who has quite a few unorthodox methods for helping patients find their voices. Perhaps the most unique approach is simply expecting Prince Albert to abide by an egalitarian model — quite a feat when working with royalty. Lionel won’t be called doctor, nor will he call the prince anything but Bertie, a name only his family calls him.
While Bertie works on voicing his problems, things are getting worse at home. King George V (Michael Gambon, or “Dumbledore” to most) is nearing the end of his life, and Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) isn’t morally ready for the challenge of being king. Bertie is on the verge of carrying a country. If only he could just be able to tell the citizen’s what they need to hear. Tragically, he can’t do this until he locates the root cause of his verbal disability, which requires the king to let a lowly, Australian speech therapist into his life.
The on-screen chemistry here isn’t reserved for a sexual but brotherly dynamic, as Geoffrey Rush as Lionel, and Firth become a fantastic acting combo as both doctor and patient and friends, simultaneously. Rush is (prepare yourself for the shameless word-play) a rush on screen. He may be a fantastic method actor as he proved in the “Pirates” films in the role of Barbossa, but he keeps it simple here. He’s a quirky fellow who isn’t easily fazed by title or frustrated yells. When aggression is on the rise, his comedic persona kicks in. And when life gets hard, out comes the scotch and a speech exercise/life lesson.
Firth just might give James Franco in “127 Hours” a run for Best Actor. Rather than playing the adorable shy guy — a role that’s taken him from Portuguese love to a blond Bri’s diary — but here that shyness becomes a timidity forced onto him by a problem (or perhaps an unknown gift) that he can’t seem to get past on his own. His moments of oral clarity, then, are all the more compelling because of a marvelous performance that captures the tragedy of such an issue, whilst exposing the slightest glimmer of hope in overcoming.
Director, Tom Hooper, has an interesting take on the function of the Royal Family, specifically the family as a symbol — not surprising in a film where a prince-turned-king must overcome a speech problem for the sake of his country. As Bertie says at one point, he, as the King of England, has no “real” power, yet it falls on him to address the nation in its greatest hour of need — the declaration of war against Germany at the start of what would become World War II. Early in the film, King George V states that with the invention of radio (and later film), British Royalty has been turned into the “lowest” of society, actors. More than anyone else, Bertie feels this performance anxiety, as his voice won’t let him become the icon a country needs to comfort and encourage the people on dark days.
This isn’t a film about practicality, because a king and queen might not make sense in a country that also has a prime minister and other political leaders to run a country. But symbols have never been about basic “needs” like food, sex and the need for taxes to insure certain inalienable rights.
“The King’s Speech” premiered over a month ago in regional theatres, but has finally made its way to general audiences as awards season comes closer. Trust me, this one has easily become one of the most sincere films about hope and the people’s need for symbols — and lets not forget the nice little history lesson along the way.
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