If Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush hadn’t been in this movie it might have come across as a nice but highly predictable British period drama, with the inevitably irritating, saccharine formula and the predictably uplifting conclusion. But Firth as King George VI and Rush as his Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue grab their roles and fire them up with incredible intelligence, honesty and likeability. The film skirts over difficult areas – the rise of Hitler and the constitutional crisis caused by Edward’s (Guy Pearce) relationship with Wallis Simpson never really affect the tone of the film – it’s rather Firth who makes their impact on Albert/George clear. A man instructed never to show emotion, Firth masterfully shows the highly emotional undercurrent afflicting the future King, and it’s a powerhouse performance. Most of the rest of the cast is enjoyable but little more – Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon is there for little more than gentle comedic value, Derek Jacobi is amusing as the conniving Archbishop Cosmo Lang, but little more than a caricature, whilst the aforementioned Pearce is downright miscast as the hapless Edward VIII, who plays Firth’s playboy brother as little more than a party-loving dandy.
To its credit the film focuses on the relationship between Bertie and Logue, and it’s a brilliant partnership, one of the best I’ve seen in film – Logue uninterested in bowing and scraping to a man born into (and who can only comprehend) privilege, with his royal counterpart torn between the life he was groomed for and his inability to cope emotionally with it. The ups and downs they face together say a great deal about their characters, but screenwriter David Seidler also uses them to convey the changes racing ahead in society around them. What is the need for the stiff-upper-lip royalty in an increasingly modern world, where even his brother is more interested in marrying for love than for duty? As history accelerates and Bertie’s accession to the throne becomes ever more likely, we see him confronting the effects his brother’s bullying and his parents’ disinterest in him had on him. It’s a highly contemporary story, which lifts the production from being a mere period drama, and Firth above all gets it.
It’s not a perfect film by any means. The formula comes straight from Working Title, the liberties taken with history are a disappointment, but Firth’s George VI is one of the all-time-great royal performances in screen history. At once he embodies a man utterly unknowable but at the same time deeply sympathetic, but he wouldn’t have been half as interesting or as enjoyable without Rush as Logue – a failed actor pushing against Britain’s class system, yet eager to be accepted by it. It’s to his enormous credit that he keeps those issues in balance with at least an equal humour and intelligence to Firth’s. Their final, make-or-break collaboration – managing Bertie’s first wartime address to the nation – is a sheer delight which will get you cheering in your seat. Rush almost actually conducts the anxious King’s speech, but this subtext shouldn’t be a surprise – director Tom Hooper shoots the entire film with enormous sensitivity to the power of set design and cinematography.
With its clever script, smart direction and sharp design, ‘The King’s Speech’ deserves a whole slew of awards; above all it’s inconceivable that Firth won’t walk away with a long-deserved Oscar.