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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Film Review | The King's Speech

The Mouth that Roared

by Thomas Delapa

Despite the upper-crust, high-flown tone, The King’s Speech may stick in your throat, especially those not amused by the all-too-common History Lite style of filmmaking. This made-for-export British import says too much, emphatically, yet ends up saying precious little.

The king in question is England’s future George VI (Colin Firth), son of the aging King George V (Michael Gambon). As the duke of York in the prewar 1930s, “Bertie” can hardly utter a word without stammering, let alone annunciate the king’s English. And in the new 20th-century era of radio and microphones, Bertie’s humiliating impediment echoes through every ear in the U.K. The failure of conventional speech therapists leads Bertie and his pert wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) to Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a saucy, unorthodox Aussie who’s never at a loss for words.

Tom Hooper, the award-winning British TV director, gives his royal subjects exactly the opposite treatment that won him kudos in HBO’s John Adams and Elisabeth I miniseries. He trades in-depth complexity for glossy simplicity, downsizes wit into glibness. In 100-odd minutes, Bertie battles his stutter, silences his insecurities and majestically finds his inner monarch, all crowned by his ascent to the throne. While this biopic is delivered as King George’s story, the filmmakers take revisionist liberties, putting words in Firth’s mouth which practically shout out: “My kingdom for an Oscar!”

A regal actor, Firth deserves better. When Logue first meets Bertie, pain and shame are written all over his face as he struggles to spit out his words. When he can speak, he’s alternately self-deprecating (“Timing isn’t my strong suit”) and angry, fuming with rage against Logue’s insolent quips. But after an auspicious prologue, screenwriter David Seidler recites rote formula, regurgitating the uplifting teacher-student lessons from the My Fair Lady/Educating Rita school of dramatics. The pronounced twist here is that it’s the Aussie commoner who’s Henry Higgins, while Bertie is the linguistically challenged timid prince with a frog in his throat.

In a movie calculated to serve up a checklist of pop talking points, Logue also pulls up a comfy Freudian couch in his ruddy, womb-like office. Lurking unspoken behind Bertie’s stutter are deep but not-too-dark childhood insecurities. He only has to face up to his bullying father and older brother (Guy Pearce) and tell them off, at least symbolically. When Bertie finally works up the courage to shout out “I have a voice!” all the audience can say, in unison, is “By George, I think he’s got it.”

While quite a few modern accounts address Bertie’s brother, the infamous and ill-fated King Edward VIII, as a man who romantically, even heroically, chose love over the throne, Hooper dismisses him in few words as a weak and frivolous playboy. The less said the better about another saggy caricature, Timothy Spall’s bulldog-jowly Winston Churchill.

Little is left unsaid in The King’s Speech, especially not the barrage of four-letter words that Bertie blurts out as damn-breaking shock therapy. Not only is the king a man of the people, but this blue-blood bloody well knows how to curse.


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