There’s a cynical term for movies like “The King’s Speech” that has become so overused that we forget how derogatory it can actually be: “Oscar Bait.” People assume that when you throw together Academy-friendly stars in a movie set at least a few decades ago with some pretty costumes and fancy sets, the movie is made just to win a few Oscars at the end of the year. In essence, we are completely disregarding the art and looking only at the competitive aspect, which is only an auxiliary component of the filmmaking process.
But Tom Hooper’s movie reminds us why this so-called “bait” often works: his story of King George VI’s incredible triumph over his speech impediment with the help of a gifted Australian therapist is a rousing chronicle of a peculiar kind of history. It doesn’t feel like a page of a textbook but rather a fresh look at a historical figure. While it’s not revolutionary or incredibly remarkable, “The King’s Speech” makes for an inspiring and very entertaining trip to the movies.
Whether due to his tumultuous childhood or just a lack of confidence, Albert (Colin Firth) cannot speak without a stammer and can hardly speak at all in public. To remedy this as the radio forces the royal family of England to be a vocal as well as visual presence, his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) turns to Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an obscure Australian speech therapist in London with rather unorthodox methods. At first, Lionel seems like a crackpot to Albert, who is used to working with specialists who are more like witch-doctors practicing ancient voodoo rituals.
Lionel’s unusual procedures attempt to find the voice of Albert, not some sort of medical or mechanical issue. He finds that the stammer is largely mental and more the result of a lack of confidence than anything. It’s a human approach, not necessarily a reverent one, and Lionel’s commitment to curing Albert often creates friction between the two as a humble speech therapist often exceeds his bounds in the presence of a prince and king. But it works, and when Albert is forced to lead an empire as King George in the face of a pernicious German threat, he finds himself even more in need of Lionel than ever.
Much as Lionel uses a human approach to speech therapy, Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler take a human approach to the story, painting not caricatures of historical figures but living, breathing people. They have thoughts, fears, and emotions just like any other person. These vivid portraits are brought to life by two incredible actors, Firth and Rush, who deliver tender portraits busting with compassion and humanity. As Logue, Rush is quirky but confident, always asserting himself as an exacting and grueling therapist but never letting his methods overtake his passion for helping an insecure man. Not for a second do we doubt Logue’s sincerity, and that’s due to Rush’s beautifully double-edged performance.
But, of course, it’s Firth’s show in the flashy role of King George, a character that must be inhabited, not just performed. Firth nails it, getting inside every thought and stammer of the king. He doesn’t just brush the surface as many actors playing historical figures do; he makes George vulnerable and sentimental. Firth’s poignant performance reminds us that what we should be looking for in movies like this is heart, and “The King’s Speech” is so full of it that you’ll forget what “Oscar Bait” means and be won over by its charms. A- /