Whatever it was he was about to say, everybody understood everything was gonna change


It’s no wonder that The King’s Speech moved to the top of Oscar prognosticators’ lists as soon as it’d been seen. It’s not that it’s good, although it is. It’s that it is packed, from its production company logos to its pledge of animal safety, with all the sorts of things that inspire the devotional voting of Academy members. It is about World War II, the most important of all cinematic subjects, but it is approached from a nice, safe angle that allows for minimal consideration of the actual hardship of battle. It alternates expertly between the playful and the dutifully solemn. It features honorable thespians playing real-life figures while also staying within earshot of their established onscreen personae. And, perhaps most catnippy of all, it is very, very British. Quite.

Colin Firth plays King George VI, who ascended to the British throne just as his nation was on the brink of war with Germany. With the role of monarch largely reduced to figurehead, the primary obligation of the new king is to provide leadership to his countrymen, especially as they hurtle towards the darkest of times. However, that’s precisely the task most clearly beyond him as he struggles with a debilitating stammer that turns brief ceremonial remarks into an exercise in endurance, both for the speaker and the listeners. After every other treatment attempt has proved fruitless, his wife seeks out the assistance of unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue. Played by Geoffrey Rush with a spirited confidence, Logue tries to address the psychological underpinnings of the impediment, leading to plentiful scenes of the commoner daring to challenge the king. Oscar voters like that sort of thing too.

The screenplay by David Seidler is full of nice byplay between the two men, and director Tom Hooper largely films their scenes with a welcome directness, trusting the actors do the work of selling the story. Hooper has a tendency to let dramatic visual signifiers sometimes run away with the film. In the HBO miniseries, it manifested as an overreliance on canted camera angles. Here he chooses to frame his shot to make the walls behind figures loom massively, as if the screen itself had been replaced by wallpaper. It’s unnecessary and inscrutable, distracting from whatever moment happens to be at hand. The film also wavers whenever it strays too much from his royal highness and the man charged with untwisting his tongue, but that’s as much a testament to the quality of their duet as it a condemnation of the scenes of domestic tranquility or political maneuvering.

Since Oscar talk has already been so prominent in this review, I’ll make a point of noting that I have zero doubt that Colin Firth will win the Best Actor trophy for his performance here. Part of that is due to the sort of political considerations that impact publicists instead of armies as there are plenty of people who feel he is owed for applauding the de facto career achievement award Jeff Bridges picked up in the category last year over Firth’s widely loved and respected performance in A Single Man. It also helps that the role, all verbal struggle and affected voice, can be pulled out into decontextualized clips that still demonstrate much of the built in showiness of the role. The real value of his acting, though, is the way in which Firth uses these details to help him bore into the man, letting the full scope of his struggle, frustration and fragile self-worth register in his eyes as he chokes out each word. He’s given a role that invites both gimmicky fuss and overt reverence, and he manages to sidestep both pitfalls to emerge playing a wounded, knowable man. Oscar voters don’t necessarily always have to sense to love that, but this year, whether they know it or not, they surely will.

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