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The King’s Speech

December 26, 2010

The King's Speech

At the outset of The King’s Speech it is 1925, and the new invention of radio is transforming the way the British monarchy relates to its people. No longer able to sit back and appear regal, they must address their subjects directly. King George V (Michael Gambon) resignedly accepts this new technology, and his eldest son David (Guy Pearce) — later to be Edward VIII — takes to it well enough. But Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the Duke of York, has been a stammerer since a very young age. After a disastrous attempt at a speech to close the British Empire Exhibition he and his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), seek in earnest someone who can help. Their searches bring them to the offices of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian sometime-actor who now hangs out his shingle as a speech therapist. His methods are considered unorthodox — not exactly what the royal family looks for in any of its dealings — but nothing else has worked.

The thing about Logue’s approach is that he acts more as a psychologist than as a speech therapist. From the first meeting he sets up the talking cure’s conversational dynamic. He proves that the Duke’s stammer is predominantly psychological by tricking him into recording a perfect recitation of Hamlet’s soliloquy. The problem isn’t in the Duke’s mouth, so much as it is in his head.

This is the real genius of the movie: using the Duke’s therapy sessions to give us a window into his emotional life. We can get a glimpse of who this man is more clearly than would be possible outside of Logue’s doors. And we also get to see a turning point in the evolution of British rule, as the monarchy turns more decisively and consciously than ever from a position of power to a position of image; if the king is king because when he speaks he speaks for the British Empire as a whole, then what are we to make of a king who cannot speak? Even more elegant is the fact that this angle isn’t jammed in haphazardly by a too-clever-by-half screenwriter, but is itself part of a true story that is interesting enough on its face.

Firth more than deserves the critical praise he’s receiving for his performance. Like singing badly, stammering on demand is far more difficult than it might appear. But his performance is immeasurably heightened by the excellent sound editing. Blank spaces are transformed into long, uncomfortable sequences of wet slaps and clicks as the Duke struggles to get something else — anything else — to come out. For all the normally-invisible work that sound editors do, it’s about time that they have a piece of work that can be noticed and appreciated.

For her part, Carter does a fine job. In the last decade her roles have been dominated by characters that take “unhinged” as a starting point; it’s nice to see her put her skills to a more nuanced use, especially her finely-controlled facial expressions. Rush also does well. In part, I’m inclined to say he’s unremarkable, but that’s largely because he’s made solid performances his own norm. If you enjoy his works in general, you’ll be more than pleased with this one in particular.

But when it comes down to it, is there really any reason to see this in a theater? Not really. It’s a good, solid movie, but never really a great one overall. It will easily keep until DVD, and you’re not particularly missing out if it doesn’t happen to open near you.

Worth it: could go either way.
Bechdel test: fail.

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