For public figures, a voice is just as important as an image. Take poor, silent film stars like John Gilbert, a man who fell out of public favor when his high-pitched voice didn’t match the public’s expectations. The search for a voice that suits one’s public persona is the quandary befalling British Prince Albert, Duke of York and stutterer extraordinaire. As the subject of the new film (and Oscar supplicant), “The King’s Speech,” Prince Albert (better known to modern audiences as King George VI and father of Queen Elizabeth II) makes for a surprisingly compelling viewing.Colin Firth plays the speech-impaired royal who, after seeing dozens of specialists whose remedies range from smoking to mouthfuls of marbles, turns in desperation to Australian speech therapist- and commoner- Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). The film charts their relationship, which starts out rocky as Logue insists on absolute equality during sessions (which includes referring to his noble patient by the informal “Bertie”). Therapy sessions play out as wonderful, stiff upper-lip comedies of manners, and involve spitting out tongue twisters, shouting vowels out of open windows, and swearing like drunken sailors. All the while, Logue queries the Duke about potential childhood traumas that could have contributed to this impediment, from youthful knee braces to his older brother’s long shadow to a forced transition to right-handed writing to an overbearing father. Nothing much comes from these investigations of the would-be King’s past, but they do serve to personify the royal and provide a degree of sympathy when the Duke of York’s elder brother and heir to the throne, King Edward VIII (played by Guy Pierce), somewhat selfishly abdicates.
The lightness in this utterly charming film is due almost exclusively to the back-and-forth banter between Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. Firth turns in an impressive, albeit gimmicky, performance. He inhabits the tightly pursed lips and inner turmoil of a frustrated prince/king nicely, even if the performance doesn’t quite measure up to the incredibly subtle and nuanced turn in last year’s, “A Single Man.” Rush’s quick retorts and sharp wit bring a fantastic energy to Logue, who is as much provocateur as therapist. Rush and Helena Bonham Carter, who gets the chance to escape the layers of make-up that have accompanied her past few roles and show off her acting chops as the Queen Mother, match Firth every step of the way. In fact, more of Bonham Carter’s caring and matronly demeanor would have been welcome.
It isn’t a perfect film; it is slight, sugary and pockmarked with a few problems that could also be described as slight. Timothy Spall’s turn as the sputtering Winston Churchill is distractingly overblown. He is more Alfred Hitchcock than the burly, wartime Prime Minister. The filmmakers whitewash King Edward’s pro-Nazi sympathies and instead focus on the mockery of his younger sibling’s oratorical inabilities. It subtracts a layer of geopolitical context from a film that is, at times, in need of a broader perspective. And no time is really taken to explore the intersection and relationship of royalty with its subjects. But alas, Tom Hooper’s story, which culminates in King George’s address to the nation as anti-aircraft guns are being manned in the streets of London and barrage balloons pepper the gray, British skies, is a buddy story at heart. It has very little time left over for social critique, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The two leads are impressive enough that their interplay more than holds the film, and they are bolstered by fine supporting performances by Pierce, Bonham Carter and Michael Gambon as George V. It breezes through its two-hour running time with aplomb and charm to spare, and in this instance those qualities go a long way.