Movie Review: The King's Speech (R)
The Charlotte Observer
"Drive for show, putt for dough," say golfers. Any talented pro can get big things right, but top prizes go to those who master details. That's what makes "The King's Speech" so polished, thoughtful and touching.
Consider something as small as the incidental music. The future King George VI (Colin Firth) consults speech therapist Lionel Logue about a stammer. Logue (Geoffrey Rush) tells him to recite while listening to music so loud it'll block out his anxiety. Logue chooses the overture to "The Marriage of Figaro," the Mozart opera where a commoner proves he should be treated as an equal by a nobleman.
Cut much later to the king's big BBC speech, meant to reassure his nation that he can lead them into World War II. As he approaches the once-paralyzing microphone, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 - known as "The Emperor" - swells up, telling us this man is ready at last to be a ruler.
Every detail in this period drama is chosen with similar care, but it's far more than the A-list version of "Masterpiece Theatre" the trailers suggest. As Peter Morgan did in "The Queen," a film about George's daughter Elizabeth, screenwriter David Seidler shows us the ways the royal family can be utterly unlike us in public behavior, yet much like us in private fears and longings.
The real George VI was never supposed to be king. Bertie, as he was known, was the second son of George V, destined to be a modestly important royal when his elder brother took the throne upon their father's death in 1936.
But Edward VIII reigned only 11 months, until he quit to marry a divorced American who'd never be embraced by the people or recognized as queen by the Church of England. Reluctant Bertie now found himself on the throne, with Hitler's jackboots already rumbling in the distance.
The film depicts this story efficiently and swiftly. Hooper uses excellent actors - severe Michael Gambon as the dying king, effete Guy Pearce as the abdicating one - to sketch in the family history. Helena Bonham Carter plays Bertie's wife with protective warmth toward her husband and coolness toward anyone who fails to acknowledge the royals' implicit superiority.
Yet the most engrossing relationship links Bertie and Logue, who lives with his family in a humble, rather ugly apartment attached to his unprepossessing office. One of these men was "made" by his DNA, the other by his own efforts. One is fabulously rich, the other barely middle-class. One is echt-British, the other an Australian regularly made to feel inferior in his adopted country.
They cannot meet as peers, and the future king treats Logue with contempt at first: Many respected doctors have failed him, and he doesn't see how this man with no letters after his name can help. Bertie is desperate to cut a better public figure, especially when he knows he'll represent England to the world at large, but he can't put much faith in someone beneath his class.
Yet as Logue makes headway against the impediment, Bertie comes to trust him. The lines between them are continually redrawn - Logue has a habit of stepping over them, sometimes unwisely - until they can speak as friends, if not quite equals.
Firth sometimes coasts as an actor on his looks and self-deprecating charm, but he rouses himself here to give the performance of his career: fearful, festive, even fiery. (The "R" rating was applied because Bertie realizes he doesn't stammer when he's angry, and he plunges happily into a string of obscenities.)
Rush, whose flamboyance won him an Oscar in "Shine," holds himself in check but fills Logue's dialogue with needling humor and incisive observations. The king-to-be may call the tune, but Logue wants to be the partner who leads the dance.
The movie turns into a historical pageant at times, with Derek Jacobi fluttering as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Anthony Andrews grave as Stanley Baldwin, and Timothy Spall growling and brandishing a cigar as Churchill.
But the therapist-patient connection keeps the film down to earth and reminds us that this could in some way be our story, too. The Man Who Would Be King - or would rather not be, in Bertie's case - is still, at bottom, a man.