A superbly crafted period drama about the relationship between King George VI and his speech therapist provides a memorable showcase for its two lead actors.
Beginning in 1925, the film traces how with Prince Albert (Colin Firth), The Duke of York, enlisted the help of an unconventional speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who helped him overcome a crippling stammer as he eventually assumed the throne and helped rally his people during World War II.
The bulk of the film explores the relationship between the stiff, insecure monarch and the charmingly straightforward Logue, his loving and supportive wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter) and the royal relatives who may have contributed to his problem.
Having spent his life in the shadow of his domineering father, George V (Michael Gambon), the shy Albert struggles with the responsibility of assuming the throne when his headstrong brother, Edward (Guy Pearce), decides to abdicate.
The screenplay by David Seidler deftly weaves these domestic tensions with the wider drama of the challenges of speaking in public, as the development of radio and newsreels create new expectations and pressures.
It is to director Tom Hooper’s credit that he keeps focused on the relationships at the heart of the film and steers well clear of the ponderous self importance that can afflict British period dramas.
Much of the appeal lies in the culture clash between Lionel and Albert: the Australian-born failed actor and the heir to the throne make for an amusing odd couple, but the connection they gradually form over the years is believable and touching.
Their sequences provide an impressive showcase for the two lead actors: Firth convincingly depicts the underlying frustration and pain of someone suffering a stammer, whilst Rush is delightfully irreverent as the one person who can engage him.
Firth seems to have been re-energised by his work in last year’s A Single Man.
Although this role might seem like a return to the repressed English gentleman he was often typecast as, he brings real nuance and feeling to the role, which could have easily slipped into cliched bluster.
Rush is magnetic as an eccentric whose wit and empathy gradually erode the aristocratic barriers blocking his patient.
Combined, their chemistry is a joy to watch as they depict the social hangups of the British class system as they gradually form a deep bond.
In supporting roles the standouts are Bonham-Carter, who is pleasingly restrained and dead-pan; Michael Gambon as an imposing George V; Guy Pearce as the smarmy Edward and Jennifer Ehle as Lionel’s loving wife.
Hooper demonstrated with his work on HBO’s John Adams that he has a great eye for period detail and the interior lives of historical figures: he achieves the same level of intimacy here with the main characters and crafts a believable recreation of the era.
Danny Cohen’s camera work is a key part of this, artfully framing the characters with a wide lens, whilst also using a Steadicam to give certain sequences an intriguingly fluid feel for a period piece.
The technical contributions across the board are excellent: Tariq Anwar’s crisp editing keeps things moving smoothly; Eve Stewart’s production design is richly detailed and the costumes by Jenny Beaven are first rate. (The only slight lapse is some CGI work near the end).
‘Crowd-pleaser’ is a term that can often signify something sentimental, but The King’s Speech is likely to give a lot of pleasure to audiences across a wide spectrum.
An astutely observed social comedy, it also has great depth as a drama, beginning and ending with sequences of considerable weight and tension.
The film has already proved a hit on the festival circuit this year and it is very hard to see audiences and Oscar voters resisting its classy blend of history, humour and emotion.
The King’s Speech premieres at the London Film Festival tonight and screens on Friday 23rd and Saturday 24th. It opens in the UK on January 7th 2011.