The fact that the Duke of York (Colin Firth) suffered from a debilitating stutter may not have been such a big deal were it not for two unrelated events: One, the invention of radio, which meant that England’s monarchs didn’t just have to wave from balconies and look good atop a horse, they actually had to speak to their subjects. And two, the generally vain, self-centered, and altogether irresponsible behavior of his older brother, Prince Edward (Guy Pearce), who, after the king’s death, abdicated the throne to marry the scandalous Baltimore divorcee Wallis Simpson, leaving his kid brother in charge.
The King’s Speech is about the eventual King George VI finding his voice, both figuratively and literally, aided by his patient, loyal, and dignified wife Elizabeth (marvelous Helena Bonham Carter) and an irreverent speech therapist, a failed actor from Australia, named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
It was Elizabeth who first sought out the commoner Logue (the state-sanctioned doctors had left her husband both frustrated and irritable), traveling by herself to his downtown London office. Director Tom Hooper has great fun watching this elegant woman cram herself into Logue’s rickety elevator and call out into his large, empty waiting room.
“I’m in the loo!” Logue shouts cheerfully—and there is the sound of flushing. Ever so subtly, her royal highness flinches.
Even after Logue realizes that his soon-to-be patient is the Duke of York, he remains defiantly casual. He insists on conducting the sessions in his own space, not at the palace, and even calling the duke by his familial nickname, Bertie. He’s equal parts psychologist and physical therapist, encouraging Bertie to sing and swear—two things the duke can do quite adeptly without stuttering—and to explore the root causes of his affliction.
In some ways, this is the therapist-as-savior model we’ve seen in such films as Good Will Hunting and Ordinary People, but the class dynamics here give the relationship a real kick. Of course, it’s positively un-kingly for Bertie to be in this office, rolling on the floor, loosely shaking his jaw, and singing—but it also proves to be surprisingly effective.
Firth does a truly remarkable job as Bertie—not just perfecting the royal stutter, but revealing Bertie’s shame, his deflecting humor (“timing isn’t my forte,” he says, explaining why he doesn’t tell jokes), his impatience—and, ultimately, his strength.
As for Rush, it’s a plum role (aren’t they all, when Rush is playing them?)—a boisterous eccentric with a close-knit family and a giant, Australia-sized chip on his shoulder.
Hooper’s direction, while slightly over-stylized (Logue’s bare studio looks like the set of a play), is highly effective. We watch King George VI approach each radio microphone as though he’s heading to the death chamber. “Good luck,” is the repeated grave whisper as he goes through a gauntlet of anxious aides.
The film, of course, will end with the most important speech of Bertie’s life: He has just ascended to the throne and Great Britain has entered World War II. He needs to be the voice of a nation—clear, resolute, and inspirational. Logue has gone with him, and it’s just the two of them in the studio—the therapist and his friend the king—and Logue is coaxing, practically conducting Bertie through the text. It’s a beautiful, nearly sacred moment and it perfectly sums up the grace and intimacy of this wonderful film.