Friday, December 24, 2010
Movie Review: "The King's Speech"
Just edging out fear of death, the fear of speaking in public is the world's No. 1 phobia. As Jerry Seinfeld once put it, that means for the majority of people, if they were at a funeral they'd rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.
Using that very relatable fear, director Tom Hooper accomplishes a remarkable thing with "The King's Speech": He makes us understand, empathize and share emotions with a man whose life should be far removed from our own understanding.
That man is King George VI (Colin Firth), who took the throne in the early days of World War II after his brother (Guy Pearce) abdicated the throne to marry a twice-divorced American woman. Being king was the farthest thing George, known to his family as "Bertie," ever wanted, even though the film suggests that he was probably the better son for the job. But in this new age, as radio takes the world by storm, kings are expected to be polished, dignified speakers. And Bertie has a problem-he's plagued by a horrible stammer that makes even normal conversation impossible.
We first see this in effect back when Bertie is just Prince Albert, freezing up in mid-speech at a sporting event. Scarred by the event, the young prince turns to a variety of doctors who offer up a number of remedies that don't work - including putting hot marbles in his mouth. Hoping to find any possible help for her husband, Bertie's wife (Helena Bonham Carter) contacts Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a failed Australian actor who helps those with speech defects. Logue at first offends Bertie with his refusal to treat the monarch differently than anyone else - he expects the prince (then king) to meet him at his own quarters and addresses him as friends, by first name. But the two tentatively strike up a professional relationship that turns into one of King George's closest friendships.
While "The King's Speech" is, at heart, a typical "triumph over adversity" tale, what's admirable is how ably Hooper also incorporates a touching study of a friendship and a fascinating look at history, as Germany prepares for war and circumstances maneuver Bertie to the throne. The titular speech does not simply provide a climax, but is the culmination of the various narrative threads that have been weaving in and out of the story. It comes about organically and not simply as an oratory version of the film's "Big Game." I was quite impressed how well Hooper, best known for his work with HBO's "John Adams" miniseries, sucked me in with this personal story and then taught me a thing or two about history in the process.
Most notable, however, is the showcase the film provides for Firth and Rush, who both deliver career-best performances. Portraying a character with a speech defect can be tricky, but Firth makes Bertie's stammer seem natural and creates a sympathetic character - a scared, self-conscious man who can't even read his daughters a bedtime story, let alone inspire a nation. I've never been tempted to cheer because a character completes a sentence, but Firth's climactic scene at the microphone is every bit as inspiring as Rocky's bout with Apollo Creed.
In many ways, Rush has the easier job as the quirky doctor and he does get quite a bit of humor with Lionel's eccentricities, particularly in a scene where he gets the monarch to spit out a stream of curse words to relax his speech. But there's a warmth and empathy Rush brings to the role, making Lionel not simply a good doctor, but a kind one, and a good friend to the king. Carter is also wonderful as a woman deeply concerned for and supportive of her husband.
"The King's Speech" could easily have been stilted, dry and boring. But in the hands of this cast and crew, it is a funny, inspiring and wonderful triumph that climaxes in one of the year's most uplifting endings. It is definitely worth talking about.
I would normally end this by telling you see either "True Grit" or "The King's Speech." But I know how the holidays get and, chances are, four hours away from the family may be a nice escape. So treat yourself to both of these films - they are wonderful year-end gifts.
- ▼ December (9)