Review: “The King’s Speech”

‘The King’s Speech’ is based on a true story about British royalty. The movie features a glittery cast and hits every note you expect it to hit.

Director Tom Hooper (‘The Damned United’, HBO’s Emmy-winning ‘John Adams’) and writer David Seidler give the people what they want: ‘The King’s Speech’ is high art for the masses, but you could also look at it as familiar fare that’s been gussied up. At times it feels like no less of a mismatched-buddy comedy than the Todd Phillips road-trip flick ‘Due Date’, although the opposites who initially clash and eventually cling to one another are played by the esteemed Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.

Firth, functioning as the Robert Downey Jr. figure, is arrogant and uptight as King George VI (father of Queen Elizabeth II), who’s struggled all his life against a debilitating stutter; Rush, in the Zach Galifianakis role, plays speech therapist Lionel Logue, who persuades the priggish royal to loosen up with his unorthodox methods — encouraging him to sing and spew profanity, anything to get the words out in a fluid stream.

And there’s even a climactic deadline they have to make: The king, or “Bertie” as Lionel calls him to his great annoyance, must deliver a radio address to unite and inspire his people as the country stands on the brink of World War II. And hey, there’s Timothy Spall, hamming it up as Winston Churchill, urging the king in a performance that almost feels like a parody, but it’s a hoot.

But because it’s so well made, ‘The King’s Speech’ allows you to forgive its formulaic nature. The obligatory training montage, for example, is shot so lushly and edited so briskly, it’s almost thrilling. Same with the standard misunderstanding that keeps these guys apart before their inevitable, feel-good reunion: The argument takes place in a park with harsh, misty daylight streaking through the trees, and it’s striking.

While the movie itself isn’t always subtle, Firth is. He immerses himself, making the king’s pent-up rage feel palpable, and making us feel sympathy for him without allowing the performance to devolve mawkishly. His Bertie is dignified, of course, but also deeply sad, and his relationship with Lionel causes him to realize that he’s never had a real friend. The nannies who raised him don’t count, and his father, King George V (a cruelly intimidating Michael Gambon), wasn’t much of a pal.

Helena Bonham Carter, sharp and no-nonsense in her snobbery as Bertie’s wife, the Queen Mum, stands earnestly by his side, but theirs is a rather mechanical relationship in which they do what they must to keep the monarchy humming. Meanwhile, Guy Pearce’s contributions feel like a bit of an afterthought; he plays Bertie’s older brother, King Edward VIII, who takes over the throne after their father’s death, only to abdicate for the woman he loves, American divorcee Wallis Simpson — hence, Bertie is now at the helm.

The friendship that develops between him and Lionel, though, provides the film with its sweet, beating heart. Rush is adorably dishevelled here, confident regardless of the formality of the situation. He’s afraid of nothing, in contrast with his powerful but nervous patient, and watching the sparring matches between two actors at top of their game is nothing short of a joy. You may as well give into it.

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