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Tells the story of the man who became King George VI, the father of Queen Elizabeth II. After his brother abdicates, George ('Bertie') reluctantly assumes the throne. Plagued by a dreaded stutter and considered unfit to be king, Bertie engages the help of an unorthodox speech therapist named Lionel Logue. Through a set of unexpected techniques, and as a result of an unlikely friendship, Bertie is able to find his voice and boldly lead the country through war
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Maybe it’s the glamour, maybe it’s the fairy tale sound of it, maybe it’s the last vestiges of once being part of the British Empire but we can never seem to shake our fascination with the Royal Family. With kings and queens of any stripe, but especially of the trials and tribulations of the British iteration. At its least it’s muck-raking scandal mongering; at its best it’s the reality of the human family writ large and tinged with melodrama.
“The King’s Speech” is somewhere in between the two poles, but its focus on the problems of human family within (and somewhat disregarding of) the trappings of state help considerably.
Ignoring the affairs of state side of a story of a king who can’t speak, which “The King’s Speech” wisely does most of the time, director Tom Hooper instead crafts a story of the real family life inside of the Royal Family and the clash of immense egos that comes along with being raised within said family. A naturally quiet, contemplative person, Albert never had the steel to stand up to his demanding father, a state of affairs picked up on by his older brother, compounding his natural shyness into a physical retreat. His inability to say what he feels to his father and family ends up transformed into an inability to speak at all.
On that level, as a purely human family drama “King’s Speech” is genuinely affecting, largely on the strength of its casting. This is Colin Firth’s film through and through and he has complete command of Albert’s quiet repose, his shame and disgust at his inability to even read a bedtime story to his daughters, his quick temper in the face of the various doctors and assistants who try and help him with his problem. He’s ably abetted by a tremendous supporting cast, particularly Pearce as the very picture of spoiled indolence and Helena Bonham Carter as supportive wife, Elizabeth.
Realizing perhaps sooner than anyone that Edward will not rule long, Elizabeth arranges for Albert to try one last time, in secret, to master his problem with the help unorthodox, self-taught speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
It’s with the introduction of Logue that “King’s Speech” truly comes alive as Hooper uses him as a therapist on multiple levels. An eccentric but insightful man, Logue realizes immediately that Albert’s problems are as much psychological as anything else and uses their sessions together to gradually coax Albert’s relationship with his family out of him. To help him find his own voice.
It’s also unfortunately at that point where Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler’s dramatic instincts begin to fail them somewhat as they fall prey to the desire to increase the jeopardy and tension in order to increase the drama. This is usually a good idea, provided you can sustain believability in your plot as you raise your stakes.
As the film gradually translates from an examination of Albert’s family tensions into a national drama with the fate of the Empire seemingly resting in his ability to talk to his subjects and lead them successfully into war, it also loses much of its power. Never mind that any even middling student of history would find the idea that George VI was somehow essential to Britain’s war effort beyond a symbolic level is hard to believe, the fact is it is totally unnecessary. The interaction between Firth and Rush is so good and the broad and deep field available from exploring how the nature of the Royal family can affect it as a family is so appealing, there’s no reason to build extra external drama on it in the second half.
It’s still a fine piece of period filmmaking boasting several of the year’s best performances. A little bit of rounding of George’s character, a little more time spent on his less pleasant characteristics and less attention spent on building dramatic stakes would have built something stronger than what we’ve finally gotten. There’s a great film inside “The King’s Speech” somewhere but it loses its way in the second half in a muddle of cross-purposes and mixed intentions. What’s left is still very good, though.