Movie review: 'The King's Speech'

Colin Firth, with Helena Bonham Carter, gives King George VI a royal yet irresistibly vulnerable bearing in "The King's Speech."
Colin Firth, with Helena Bonham Carter, gives King George VI a royal yet irresistibly vulnerable bearing in "The King's Speech." (Laurie Sparham/Weinstein Co.)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2010; 11:37 AM

"The King's Speech" arrives in theaters like a big, shiny Christmas present to moviegoers, a cinematic stocking stuffer sure to please even the Scroogiest multiplex-dweller. It's the kind of absorbing, attractive, unfailingly tasteful enterprise that a critic can recommend without caveat - unlike so many of this year's equally well-made but edgier outings. "The Black Swan"? A tour de force no doubt, but watch out for those over-the-top scenes of gore and mayhem! "127 Hours"? Inspiring and great fun to watch - but you might want to close your eyes when the hero cuts off his arm. "The Fighter"? A knock-out, although scenes of crack addiction, prison and pulverizing boxing violence may not be for everyone.

"The King's Speech"? Go! Enjoy!

There's nothing not to love about Tom Hooper's classy historical drama, which tells the story of how Britain's King George VI (Colin Firth) overcame a debilitating stutter and went on later to lead the country through World War II. Although Bertie, as he was known to his family, had no intention of assuming the throne, he found himself wearing the crown when his brother, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson. Painfully shy, reticent to the point of paralysis, Bertie freezes up every time he approaches a microphone (the film opens in 1925, at a disastrous speech before thousands in London's Wembley Stadium). It's a situation that Bertie's wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), realizes just won't do. She enlists the help of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist in London whose methods include encouraging his clients to sing, stare deep into childhood wounds and swear like stevedores.

That last bit led the prigs at the Motion Picture Association ratings board to give "The King's Speech" an R rating, but parents of teenagers need to know: There's not only nothing objectionable about this story, there's everything wholesome and edifying about it. Hewing to a course already set by such classics as "The Miracle Worker," "My Fair Lady" and "Shine" - which, coincidentally, starred Rush as a troubled pianist on the verge of a comeback - "The King's Speech" features familiar scenes of defeat, the student's resistance, his ultimate surrender and final triumph. But its themes resonate uncannily with life, from the impact of emerging technology (in this case radio) to the high stakes of political rhetoric. When Bertie and his children - one of whom is Queen Elizabeth II - listen to Hitler giving a speech, young Elizabeth asks him what the German chancellor is saying. "I don't know," Bertie replies worriedly. "But he seems to be saying it rather well."

Firth has carved out an accomplished career making otherwise chilly and recessive characters deeply sympathetic. He did it last year with "A Single Man," and he does it again with the reluctant King George, managing to infuse him with an air of forbidding royal superiority and disarming tenderness at the very same time. How does Firth do this? Is it in his eyes, somehow remote and frightened? Is it his voice, plummy but also tentative, quietly begging for acceptance? Is it his physical carriage, stiff but also subtly expressive? It's all of those things, of course. Firth has mastered what may be the most crucial ineffable element of acting: withholding everything from viewers save that tiniest, most crucial sliver of humanity to which they can completely relate.

While Firth is working that barely perceptible magic, Rush and Bonham Carter get to tuck themselves into the cheekiest, most lighthearted scenes in "The King's Speech," which toggles between the royals' elegant court life and Logue's sparse, arrestingly distressed studio. When Elizabeth (who came to be known as the Queen Mother) first engages Logue to work with her husband, she's mysterious about his identity, saying only that his job requires public speaking. When Logue suggests he change jobs, she demurs. "What is he, an indentured servant?" he quips. "Something like that," she replies dryly.

Such are the bubbles of badinage that keep "The King's Speech" pleasantly afloat, even as the viewer's heart aches for the embattled, brittle-natured Bertie. Soon enough, though, hearts begin to soar - not coincidentally when Hooper pulls out every manipulative trick to set pulses racing (in case the importance of the king's climactic speech isn't underlined enough, Hooper helpfully adds some Beethoven). No matter. He earns it. "The King's Speech" is a movie of buoyant spirit, affecting sensitivity and infectious cheer. Go! Enjoy!

rrr½ R. At Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema and Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains profanity in a speech therapy context. 118 minutes.

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