Having humanized Elizabeth II a few years ago in The Queen, for which Helen Mirren won every Best Actress award known to man, British cinema now turns its middlebrow attention to her father, King George VI, who unexpectedly found himself on the throne just as Hitler began gearing up for war. And, sure enough, Colin Firth, playing the monarch, has already nabbed several major prizes, including Best Actor citations from both the New York and LA film critics. Will he go on to win the Oscar? Tough to bet against him, because if there’s one thing Hollywood loves more than an actor playing royalty, it’s an actor depicting a disability. And The King’s Speech pivots on an especially endearing historical factoid: George VI stuttered.
More accurately, he stammered, horribly, to the point where public speaking—a necessity for the modern-day monarch, what with the advent of radio broadcasts—was next to impossible for him. In a last-ditch effort at a cure, his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) all but drags him to the office of an Australian-born speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose methods are predictably but entertainingly unorthodox: reciting Shakespeare while wearing headphones blasting classical music, unleashing streams of highly un-royal profanity, etc. The two men form the contentious but mutually respectful bond you’d expect; any suspense boils down to whether George will pull off a crucial address to the nation in the fall of 1939. (Hint: Yes.)
To the extent that it focuses specifically on George’s struggle to take full possession of his larynx, The King’s Speech makes for a gratifyingly droll docudrama, with both Firth and Rush taking evident delight in their characters’ unusual battle of wills. Unfortunately, there’s really no getting around the true major event of this period in British history, so the movie frequently detours, to very little effect, over to George’s elder brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), whose scandalous relationship with American divorcée Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) ultimately leads to his abdication of the throne. Much like George tripping over his consonants, the film keeps finding itself stuck in this dutiful-biopic groove. Alas, there is no cure for that.