Though it features the sort of rousing, uplifting score one expects for a movie about an underdog overcoming an obstacle, the dominant sonic motif in Tom Hooper's The King's Speech is a light, choked gargle, the sound of the base of the tongue splashing around the back of the throat in tremulous preparation for a performance it would like nothing more than to not give. The tongue in question belongs to Albert Frederick Arthur George, the Duke of York and second in line of succession to the king of England, a man whose stammer might never had been an issue were he blessed with the good fortune to have been born before the popularization of radio.
The film opens in 1925, at the closing of the Empire Exhibition at Wembley. Albert's father, King George V (Michael Gambon), charges him with delivering the closing speech on radio, himself and the primary heir to the throne, Prince Edward, having already made their wireless debuts. As he arrives, his wife and their confidants reassure Albert that he will do wonderfully, but the look of fear in his eyes creates a tense mood before he even says a word. At last, aides send him in front of the microphone at the head of the stands, and all in the audience turn reverently to hear him. The pause is deafening, and when Albert finally speaks, the crackled stutters that escape his lips echo through the sound system, mocking him as the crowd maintains their respectful silence but look around uncomfortably in that way people need to make eye contact to share pain but must also avoid it at all costs to prevent an errant titter.
It's an excruciating moment, and as someone who does not stammer but has often felt the hot sting of apprehension -- no, pure, unrelenting terror -- at the simple notion of public speaking, the seemingly contradictory combination of agoraphobia and claustrophobia that creeps into the mise-en-scène rang painfully true. Of course, the damned thing about a stammer or any other display of anxiety is that, once aware that others have picked up on the trait, the sufferer can never right, spiraling further into a pit of self-revulsion and embarrassment that magnifies the first slip into a cascade of tics and halting pronunciation. The first scared pause, the dreaded "ums" and "likes," never come in one aberration. They only ever lead to more mistakes.
Humiliated by the experience, Albert tries a series of speech therapists, all of whom display a knowledge of medicine so arcane one expects them to break out leeches and suggest a blood-letting. As ashamed by the experiences of failing with countless doctors as the public performances themselves, Albert swears off speech therapy and banks on a public life held largely out of view as his father and elder brother can handle the speeches. But the king knows better. He realizes that an occasional appearance in procession with a regal wave will no longer do; with every household turning to radio for news, entertainment, and general social guidance, it is imperative that the royal family take advantage of the airwaves lest they become an inanimate relic alongside the other trinkets in their castles for fat American tourists to come marvel at year after year. "We've been reduced to the most vile and loathsome profession of all: actors," sighs the king with grim irony.
Behind Albert's back, his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), finds a middle-class therapist, one Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Whatever danger this movie was in of being a stuffy period drama is obliterated by Rush's entrance, heralded by a toilet flush before that magnificent mass of a head enters the frame and, unaware of who Elizabeth really is, makes plain, frank chat with her. His puckish grin, mischievous bow tie (and since when has a bow tie been mischievous?) and quick wit disarm the somber proceedings instantly, though it's just as amusing to see his boyish looks blanch when his upfront candor is returned in kind and Elizabeth reveals her identity and that of her husband.
The scenes between Lionel and Albert -- or Bertie, as his family (and Lionel, to his extreme annoyance) call him -- play as a tug-of-war between stale, Academy-pleasing montage of uplift and determination and something fresher, more spontaneous. Lionel insists on a first-name basis to make his therapy work, and his direct manner so stuns the royal member used to even his closest advisers speaking to him with reverence and cowed expression that he starts answering back in spite of himself. Rush's humor is infectious; Bertie tells him about the other doctors who prescribed cigarettes to relax the lungs, to which Lionel replies, "They're idiots." "They're all knighted," replies Bertie smugly. "That makes it official, then," says Lionel with a wide grin.
Rush and Firth attain an instant chemistry that shows off each individually but also creates a certain hollowness when they're apart. Rush, with his giant, triangular face, is at once boyish and refined, his elocution and perfect diction clashing with his more laid-back attitude. He plays off Firth, who once again gives a fantastic performance. Like Tilda Swinton, Firth is seemingly incapable of giving anything less than a mesmerizing performance, and he's the sort of person who can oscillate between homely and strikingly beautiful depending on they compose themselves. Firth spends most of the film contorted in mental agony, squashing his throat into a makeshift double chin as if compressing a bellow, hoping to stoke the words out of his lungs. He looks uncomfortable with the very thought of existence, his eyes darting nervously even when secluded from the public eye.
Had Hooper the confidence to stay entirely with their interplay, The King's Speech might have deserved the fevered hype that has greeted its release. But he gets mired in the cliché of the genre. His edits border on the sporadic at times, eliding over the more intimate and affecting moments to get to necessary stopgaps in plot. Bound to tell the historical narrative, Hooper must devote time to Prince Edward, a feckless, irresolute cad governed by his emotions, all of which are petulant and self-centered. Casting Guy Pearce in the role makes all the Australian jokes lobbed at Lionel throughout the film that much more amusing, but not even Pearce can work with the weakling. Nothing exposes the ludicrous nature of the monarchy like Edward's ascension and ultimate abdication of the throne: he falls in love with an American woman working on her second divorce, and his passions lead him to propose marriage. As the head of the Church of England, the king could not marry a divorcée, and what's more, neither the characters nor the people behind the camera suggest his rashness comes from true love. And so, Edward drains the film's middle section, simply occupying time until he can at last drop out and let his younger brother assume the throne.
Furthermore, Hooper and writer David Seidler get stuck with the proposition of successfully building dramatic tension to the titular speech, delivered when Britain declared war on Germany. Though Lionel features prominently and the camera spends some time in his modest domicile, this is a film that essentially roots itself in the hermetically sealed world of the monarchy, a faded, anachronistic relic that effectually ended long before the Russian tsars and German emperors mentioned nervously as Albert and others ponder the fate of the dynasty. But this creates the issues of building social tension through the group of people most oblivious to popular malaise and the nuances of international relations. After all, this monarchy sent its subjects to die en masse in the previous Great War even though they, being of inbred "pure" stock, were related to the German nobility they were meant to be opposing. The film wouldn't work if it suddenly sprang WWII on the audience without tying Albert's story to the mounting international turbulence, but it also seems clumsy for the characters to mention him only in the most terse and suggestive way possible, as they do throughout the 30s before Albert becomes George VI. Only when war is at England's doorsteps do the references to "Herr Hitler" becomes anything less than thudding moments of forced relevance in an otherwise sharp script.
The film has its other flaws. For the note-perfect work from the main cast, some of the supporting parts, though played by heavyweights border on the laughable. Timothy Spall, my dear Timothy, puts in such a bad Churchill impersonation I kept waiting for, Monty Python-style, someone to walk in from behind the camera and say, "No, stop, this has gotten far too silly." Derek Jacobi plays the Archbishop of Canterbury, one of the more morally superior to hold the position, as an unctuous but snippy sycophant, wanting to be villainous without being able to twist the real man that far without snapping him from his base in reality. Long after Hooper's direction settles into its refined grace and settles the aesthetic issues near the start, these two drag down all of their scenes. Taken with some of the more obvious lines, these nagging issues too often distract from the keen, hilarious and moving double act shared by Rush and Firth and expertly moderated by Carter.
Yet if The King's Speech is ultimately unable to transcend the restrictive boundaries of its awards-baiting genre, it overcomes any disappointment by being so full of verve and energy that it at least stretches those confines to the breaking point. This is the kind of film made to show off its actors, but the main players are all so excellent that they would all deserve awards, were they given based on merit instead of marketing ability. Fortunately for the cast and crew, The King's Speech has enjoyed plenty of that as well. I do not think the term "Oscar-bait" necessarily connotes a bad film, but it does speak to the increasingly stale formula guaranteed to please the artistically conservative members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. What typically makes an Oscar-bait film unbearable is when it was clearly made to reap platitudes.
The King's Speech works because it cares for its characters and understands the symbolic but vital importance of George VI. A whole other movie could be made about the courage he and his wife displayed during the war, never leaving London even when a bomb went off at Buckingham Palace. The pauses he put into his speeches as he ensured each word came out clearly gave his voice a solemn gravity, and though his inspiration gets overlooked in favor of Churchill, George too played a key role in the war effort. Rush's Lionel looks compassionately but sternly upon his subject, aware that Albert could be a great man if he could only get over his fears. It is a testament to how well Rush goads Albert and how well Firth responds that, when the speech came at last, though I knew the ending, a tiny knot had formed in my stomach. Whatever else holds back the film, that effect was earned, and this break from the usual, priggish nature of period drama made The King's Speech an unexpected pleasure to watch.