Having grown up with a strict father (Michael Gambon) and a prominent older brother (Guy Pearce), an otherwise capable and courtly fellow (Colin Firth) finds himself with a paralyzing speech impediment: he stammers, severely.
Unfortunately for him, he’s the Duke of York, at a time when the proliferation of radio has compounded the already unpleasant duty of public speaking. Fortunately for him, his enterprising wife (Helena Bonham Carter) seeks help from a successful, if unconventional, speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush).
With his dignity to protect, or perhaps only his battered pride, the duke at firsts resists treatment from this man, who happens also and quite proudly to be a commoner. But there is the matter of that duty, and the fact that nothing else works. Then, to everyone’s surprise, the stammerer inherits the throne. Then his nation goes to war, and the public speaking only gets harder and more necessary. True story.
We may presume the movie’s title refers both to the difficult evolution of one man’s diction and to a momentous radio address he delivered to his people in 1939, dramatized climactically here as the greatest challenge of his career. The help and friendship he got was important, too, and “The King’s Speech Therapist” also would have been correct, if maybe too specific.
Call it a glossy inspirational inversion of “Pygmalion,” or a sports flick for those who prefer royals to athletes, but there’s no denying the universal appeal of this tastefully wrapped package. Director Tom Hooper, also of “The Damned United” and the “John Adams” series, obviously is at ease with recreated history and with actors, and never mind that screenwriter David Seidler’s most recent credit before this was the David Carradine TV movie “Kung Fu Killer.” Here, Seidler’s solid script shows the consideration of humility and civility that we always say the movies lack. Also, and most importantly, the ennobling performances by Firth and Rush are as great and full as they’ve ever been.
With Firth, it isn’t just the technical challenge of the impediment; it’s the progress he makes — and the delicate combination of royal entitlement and abashed anguish that can not possibly be as easy to humanize as he makes it seem. And for Rush, this is the perfect role, with warmth and compassion built in, but also enough restraint to temper his innate theatricality.
Sure, the picture gets a little proud of itself for its carefully controlled emotional manipulation, and at times we can practically smell that pride on Bonham Carter’s breath. But of course she, like the rest of them, is simply doing her part for king and country and awards campaign. A well-bred crowd-pleaser and so obviously an Oscar magnet that it’s equally obvious to say so, “The King’s Speech” also happens to be a good movie. We’ll all feel better when the word gets out.