*The King's Speech (R)
Cinemark 16, Kimball's Peak Three
The King's Speech begins with a tense, devastating moment. The Duke of York, son of Britain's king, is about to deliver an address at the 1925 British Empire Exhibition. He steps up to the microphone, clears his throat as he waits for the red-light signal. And then — silence. Epic silence. Followed by a stutter in which he can barely get a word out. It's gut-wrenching.
Fast-forward to 1934. The duke, known as Albert, still has a stutter, but with the perspective having shifted to behind-the-scenes, the mood's lightened considerably. The film, directed by Tom Hooper (The Damned United), and written by David Seidler, has the appearance of royalty with the personality of a commoner — a stubborn, self-deprecating and quite witty commoner.
Colin Firth is rightly garnering Oscar buzz as the duke and future King George VI, who nearly ends his quest to fix his stammer after dealing with a string of incompetent imbeciles who prescribe remedies such as filling his mouth with marbles, or puffing on cigarettes.
"Cigarette smoking calms the nerves and gives you confidence!" his doctor cheerfully advises.
Albert's wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), won't give up, however, and surreptitiously visits an unconventional Australian therapist for a consult. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) is different, all right: Not realizing that Elizabeth is a royal, he insists that his sessions with her husband take place in his office. When he realizes whom he's dealing with, well, he still insists that the duke come there.
There's little fawning and zero tolerance for Albert's self-pity. In fact, when Albert, whom Lionel quickly nicknames Bertie, insists that the arrangement won't work out, Lionel practically baits him to break the silence.
"Do you know any jokes?" Lionel asks.
"Timing isn't my strong suit," Albert snaps.
The back-and-forth between doctor and patient — for Albert, of course, eventually agrees to treatment — is the highlight of the film. Lionel's methods to get words flowing include singing and cursing; a couple of the best scenes have Firth warbling, swearing up a blue streak, or dancing, occasionally all at the same time. It's not much of a spoiler to reveal that Lionel's approach works. And when he sees that Albert's stutter isn't physical, he becomes a bit of a psychotherapist, too.
Turns out it's not easy being a smooth-talking public figure when you have a father (a terrifically caustic Michael Gambon) who tries to help you by saying things such as, "Spit it out!" Also troubling Albert is his brother, David (Guy Pearce), who is the rightful king once Dad passes away but who abdicates the throne because he refuses to leave his divorced lover.
Firth is funny and natural as the reluctant king, brilliantly affecting a stutter without sounding affected. And Rush is a joy to watch as well, tartly amusing in his exchanges with Bertie and Elizabeth yet a bit goofy on his own time. (Lionel is an amateur, and not very good stage actor, and we see him bombing auditions and practicing in front of his children.) Viewers expecting the stiff royal drama that the dull title implies will be just as surprised as the king when he's eventually able to deliver a flawless speech.