Speaking highly of 'The King's Speech'

Posted: Thursday, February 03, 2011

"The King's Speech"

Ap Photo/The Weinstein Company
Ap Photo/The Weinstein Company
In this film publicity image released by The Weinstein Company, Colin Firth portrays King George VI in a scene from "The King's Speech."

See Saw Films

1 hour, 58 minutes

It doesn't happen very often that I find myself completely 180 degrees wrong about a movie. Usually, by the time you go in, you know pretty well how you're going to feel. Sometimes you get surprised one way or another, but media these days is such that it's almost impossible to go into a movie completely cold. And, by the time "The King's Speech" was finally released wide and made its way down to the Peninsula, having just been nominated for 12 Oscars, there was little question that it was, indeed, a quality film.

What I was wrong about, however, was my initial reaction upon reading the synopsis months and months ago. The blurb I came across described a funny little indie film about a British monarch with a stutter and the irrepressible therapist who helped him overcome it. There was early talk of the film being an awards longshot, but with such a thin and silly sounding premise, one that was worth no more than a t10-minute trivia segment on NPR, I was certain that would be the last I would ever hear of "The King's Speech."

Am I glad things turned out otherwise.

Colin Firth is Albert, the Duke of York, and second son to a stern and commanding father, King George V. When the film begins in the mid-1920s, Albert lives happily in relative obscurity until the unthinkable happens. The new invention of radio demands that his Royal Highness deliver a speech to the nation over the airwaves. The speech is of little importance, a novelty, really, but for Albert it is a crushing defeat. All his life, the Duke has suffered a debilitating stammer, making public speaking impossible.

While safely at home with wife and daughters, Albert's problem is lessened, and of no great consequence, but with the role of the Royals becoming more and more ceremonial, as well as with the rise of Nazism in the 30s, there is no question that eventually public speaking will be required. Therefore, his wife Elizabeth, played beautifully by Helena Bonham Carter, begins to cast around for some kind of medical intervention. Doctor after doctor is engaged, but the Duke is either unable or unwilling to make any progress.

Finally, in desperation, Elizabeth seeks help outside the regular confines of court. Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush, comes highly recommended, despite being a commoner and, scandalously, an Australian. Lionel's rules are strict and unyielding, but he believes that he can cure Albert's ailment, and thus it is that the Duke of York is reluctantly introduced to his new therapist.

Much of the fun of the film involves the interaction between Albert and Lionel and the sometimes unorthodox and often explosive sessions, but had this been the entire film, I think I would have been right in my initial assessment. What makes this movie good isn't the speech therapy, although I learned a lot and gained an appreciation of stuttering that I didn't have before. The strength of the film lies in the careful way it stacks stress upon stress on Albert's shoulders, turning what would have been a problematic speech defect in a regular man into something potentially world-changing for the Duke, his millions of subjects, and possibly for people all over the globe. That invention of radio, the premature death of the King, the rise to the throne by a relatively weak brother, and the rise of Hitler and Stalin -- combined historical events seem almost divinely orchestrated to make Albert's strong voice a vital necessity.

When brother Edward, King for a mere twelve months, abdicates the throne to marry Mrs. Simpson, Albert is called upon to represent his nation and all of free Europe in strong clear tones. Certainly some of this is exaggerated, and as is true with all "real-life" films, much of the time frame is condensed, but the drama and combination of spectacular historical elements make "The King's Speech" uplifting and powerful.

There is almost nothing I didn't like about the film, although I do have to take exception to one element, and it's an element that often causes me to gripe. This film is rated R for language. Before going into the theater, my wife and I joked that the therapist probably has the King use the F-word in the therapy sessions.

Guess what? Yes, there're several scenes with some rough language, but of all the movies I've seen that are deemed off limits to children because of cursing, I've never seen one where the offending element was so benign and so integral to the story. This is a film that should be shown in schools, either in speech classes, or in history classes, to show England in the build-up to World War II if nothing else. It is two hours of real, valuable, positive entertainment, but in our school district, as in most around the country, the movie couldn't be shown in class even with a permission slip home. "Season of the Witch," on the other hand, Nicholas Cage's silly witchcraft movie from a few weeks ago, with it's multiple violent and graphic death scenes, including one where a man's head is twisted 180 degrees around his body, can be shown without a problem because it's rated PG-13. What is wrong with this picture?!

"The King's Speech" is certainly going to win many of the Oscars it's been nominated for. Colin Firth is a shoo-in for Lead Actor, and the film is front-runner for Best Picture as well. I haven't decided whether I think this film, or "The Social Network" is better. One of the two will be the winner, though, you can count on that.

It's funny -- both of those films, just upon reading the bare synopsis, don't sound like they would hold up for a full two hours, but it's a testament to everyone involved -- directors, writers, production designers, as well as the marvelous actors, that they more than prove themselves worthy. If "The King's Speech" comes out on top, it won't bother me in the least.

Grade: A

"The King's Speech" is rated R for the completely appropriate and surprisingly gentle use of harsh language, milder than what most 12-year-olds hear 10 times a day. Good job MPAA!

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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