Movie audiences never tire of peeking into royal chambers, witnessing fast-acting psychoanalyses, cheering on the average Joe or seeing Herr Hitler get his nose bloodied; so it’s easy to understand the appeal of The King’s Speech, in which George VI single-handedly defeats the Nazis thanks to a course of treatment from an unlicensed commoner. And there’s more: The King’s Speech enjoys the always popular trait of being true, more or less.
In the 1920s, when the future George VI was still the Duke of York, he sought a cure for his stammer (a severe impediment to public duties) but found no help until he put himself in the hands of an uncredentialed Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue. Their relationship might not have had the world-historical import that The King’s Speech works up for it at the climax, nor was Logue necessarily as shabby and obscure as the movie makes him out to have been; but when war came between England and Germany, and subjects throughout the empire had to be rallied to the cause, George VI did manage to deliver the necessary radio address, and Logue’s coaching was integral to its success.
Which is to say that The King’s Speech is a crowd-pleasing movie about the importance of pleasing crowds.
David Seidler’s screenplay unabashedly states that theme out loud (just as it goes about unabashedly running the whole narrative pool table) when in the early scenes it has the rich-toned and overbearing George V (Michael Gambon) lecture his wretchedly tongue-tied second son on the role of monarchs in the new age of mass movements and radio. "We’re actors," grumbles the old king. Although this observation would have been banal even in the 1920s, Gambon delivers it with a saving mixture of distaste and satisfaction—distaste because George V prides himself on bearing burdens unimaginable to an ordinary performer and satisfaction because in his superiority he has mastered the modern airwaves. Why can’t his son?
"Why?" turns out to be exactly the question that Geoffrey Rush as Logue (or Lionel, as he prefers to be called) repeatedly presses on Colin Firth as the royal patient (or Bertie, as Lionel persists in calling him). The royal family may care about nothing but results, but Lionel must have reasons. Only viewers who are entirely ignorant of dramatic conventions will fail to guess what’s coming when Bertie and his loving wife, Elizabeth (the ever-welcome Helena Bonham Carter), insist that the problem is purely physical, and no impertinent questions about the duke’s personal life will be allowed. Only viewers who are entirely impervious to dramatic pleasure will fail to enjoy the ensuing contest—not just between Lionel and Bertie but also between Rush and Firth.
One lopes about and croons like a hyperarticulate camel; the other squares himself up and clicks at the back of his throat like a handsomely wrapped toy that’s malfunctioned. You might think Rush would have the advantage, given his centripetal personality, plus the opportunity to wow the audience with tongue twisters. But despite giving him a warm and chummy character to play, and occasions for jocular virtuosity, the movie maneuvers him into second place in the audience’s affections behind the chronically self-contained Firth. Everything well calculated and responsible in Firth’s approach to acting, even in comedy, finds its ideal outlet in Bertie, a man so alert to every nuance of duty that he hardly blinks, and so trapped that his eyes continually flash with desperate, mute intelligence. It’s yet another convention respected by The King’s Speech, this binding of an able-bodied actor, whose physical protest against the constraints he’s adopted reads as if it’s the character’s emotional pain. But conventional characters rarely have the genuine wit that Seidler’s screenplay gives Bertie; or the credible relationship with a smart, protective and admiring wife; or the suggestion that his struggle corresponds with the actor’s patient, laborious, ultimately brilliant construction of the performance.