The King’s Speech begins with a tense, devastating moment. The Duke of York, son of Britain’s king, is about to deliver an address at the 1925 British Empire Exhibition. He steps up to the microphone, clears his throat as he waits for the signal of three blinking lights, and then a solid one. And then—silence. Epic silence. Followed by a stutter in which he can barely get a word out. It’s gut-wrenching.
Fast forward to 1934, and the duke known as Bertie still has a stutter, but the perspective has shifted to behind-the-scenes and the mood lightens considerably. Tom Hooper’s film, written by David Seidler, has the appearance of royalty with the personality of a commoner—a stubborn, self-deprecating, and quite witty commoner. Colin Firth is rightly garnering Oscar buzz as the duke and future King George VI, who nearly ends his quest to fix his stammer because of a string of imbeciles who prescribe remedies such as a mouthful of marbles and cigarettes. (“Cigarette smoking calms the nerves and gives you confidence!” his doctor cheerfully advises.)
Bertie’s wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) won’t give up, however, and surreptitiously visits an unconventional Australian therapist for consultation. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) is different, all right: Not realizing that Elizabeth is a royal, he insists that his sessions with her husband take place in his office. When he realizes whom he’s dealing with, well, he still insists that Bertie come to his office. There’s little fawning and zero tolerance for Bertie’s self-pity. In fact, when Bertie insists that the arrangement won’t work out, Lionel practically baits him to break the duke’s preferred silence. “Do you know any jokes?” Lionel asks. “Timing isn’t my strong suit,” Bertie snaps.
The back-and-forth between doctor and patient—for naturally, eventually Bertie agrees to treatment—is the highlight of the film. Lionel’s methods to get words flowing include singing and cursing; a couple of the best scenes have Firth warbling, swearing up a blue streak, or dancing, occasionally all at the same time. It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Lionel’s approach works. And when he sees that Bertie’s stutter isn’t physical, he becomes a bit of a psychotherapist, too. It’s not easy being a smooth-talking public figure when you have a father (a terrifically caustic Michael Gambon) who tries to help you by saying things such as, “Spit it out!”
Firth is funny and natural as the reluctant king, brilliantly affecting a stutter without sounding affected. Rush is a joy to watch as well, tartly amusing in his exchanges with Bertie and Elizabeth yet a bit goofy on his own time. (Lionel is an amateur—and not very good—stage actor.) Viewers expecting the stiff royal drama that the dull title implies will be as surprised as the king who’s eventually able to deliver a flawless speech.