I firmly oppose the idea that art is competitive, and I deplore all back-slapping, self-congratulatory awards shows without exception. So predicting year-end prize-winners a month early is usually to be avoided at all costs. Having said that, I remain passionate in my unalterable opinion as I declare The King’s Speech the Best Film of 2010. Nothing of its greatness has preceded it, and nothing I have seen in what’s to come in the next few weeks can equal its splendor and magnitude. Therefore, I see no reason how or why this will change. The King’s Speech is a masterpiece.
This true story—impeccably directed by Tom Hooper (13 Emmys for HBO’s John Adams mini-series) from an exemplary, well-researched screenplay by David Seidler—is a history lesson with warm, heart-rending humor that centers on the quirky relationship between England’s beloved King George VI (Colin Firth, in the performance of a lifetime) and his irreverent, unconventional Australian speech teacher, a failed Shakespearean actor named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
The film is a colossal triumph on so many levels that it’s a challenge to know where to begin to describe it. In a meticulous prologue, we empathize immediately with the predicament of England’s “stammering prince” when his father, George V, asked him to deliver an inaugural broadcast in 1925 on a terrifying new invention called radio. The nation and the entire world held its breath as the poor Duke of York stepped reluctantly to the mike at the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley, and out came a stuttering jumble of babble.
By 1934, the mortified prince was at the mercy of an army of therapists who tried vainly to cure his pathological speech impediment while he tried to speak with his mouth full of marbles. Red with frustration and rage, Firth gives a colorful, sympathetic performance that is nothing short of perfection.
Then, just when he was about to give up hope of a public life and retire in seclusion, an unorthodox and controversial upstart entered his life, bossing him around and even calling him by his nickname, “Bertie.” His daughters, two little princesses named Margaret and Elizabeth (who succeeded her father as Queen Elizabeth II) were amused but tolerant, while the Duke’s wife (Helena Bonham Carter, with the same build and body language as the future Queen Mum) tracked down Logue in the classifieds and dragged the future king to a grim section of London, posing as “Mr. Johnson.”
It was hate at first sight.
By 1936, when his handsome older brother, Edward, the Duke of Windsor (Guy Pearce), scandalized the royal family and abdicated the British throne to marry “the woman he loved,” Bertie inherited a crown he didn’t want. Faced with a leader who couldn’t address the world, and a country on the verge of World War II, the British people were horrified. Bertie had no choice but to bring back the estranged Logue he had unceremoniously fired.
Some of the most interesting and amusing scenes show Logue’s bizarre methods of treatment, forcing Bertie to lie on the floor and endure annoying exercises, strengthening his jaw and diaphragm muscles while speaking in riddles. While animosity builds slowly to planes of trust and even affection between two men, the movie also takes you behind the scenes of the palaces and country estates such as Sandringham and Balmoral, in the same manner as The Queen.
How it all turned out sets the template for a film of extraordinary humanity and spirit. The first time his two daughters address Bertie as “Your Majesty,” the look on Firth’s face is wrenching. Badgering and brow-beating the new king, taking outrageous liberties and humiliating him by unceremoniously plopping himself down on his throne, it was Logue who gave him the kick in the pants to carry on the torch and cured him in the process.
Bertie paid back his new best friend by inviting him to the coronation and seating him in the royal box at Westminster Abbey. When the king declared war against Germany, it was Logue by his side, filling him with the courage, forcefulness and cajones to do it so triumphantly that the speech made history. The world listened to the radio and cheered, never knowing George VI was being egged on, in the pauses, to say the “F word” three times silently to himself for dramatic emphasis. The odd couple remained friends until the king died in 1952 at age 56.
It’s an epic story, but the regal pomp and pageantry are never intrusive. Even with his inventive staging and surprising visuals, director Hooper keeps everything as real as breathing. The majestic cast is overwhelming: Claire Bloom as the king’s mother, Queen Mary; Jennifer Ehle as Mrs. Logue, the surprised wife who is so shocked to find the king of England in her parlor that she doesn’t know what else to do but invite him to stay for dinner; Derek Jacobi as the archbishop; Michael Gambon as King George V. Each contributes heft and ballast to a film rich in awards-season fertility. But it is still Firth who, after a long and distinguished career, gets the role that should guide him to his long-deserved Oscar. As the actor of the year in the film of the year, I can’t think of enough adjectives to praise him properly. The King’s Speech has left me speechless.