By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
As director Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech” opens, war clouds are forming over England. King George V is aging. Herr Hitler is orating like the dickens. It is apparent the king’s heir apparent will let love with a commoner deter him from reigning. And geez, his little brother, the Duke of York, has a terrible stammer. This won’t do at all.
Forget for the moment that, as an American, you don’t go for all this king stuff. Buy into this important tidbit of Western Civilization and you are brought into His Majesty’s very secret world. You will be ennobled…survival of the empire and all that, old sport. That’s how Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue, humanist and speech therapist extraordinaire, feels.
Oh, he doesn’t readily admit it, insisting at first on calling the monarch-client (Colin Firth) by his sobriquet, Bertie. Hardly viewing it as the greatest humbling of the throne since Runnymede, Dr. Logue’s actual contention is that a democratic relationship is key to a cure. It appears that the Prince’s education won’t be limited to proper enunciation.
It’s all pretty grand and upper crust, a gilt-edged variation on a genre that has seen Helen Keller bond with Annie Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker” (1962) and Robert De Niro’s Walt Koontz learn forbearance at the ministrations of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Rusty in “Flawless” (1999). In a dramatically ideal world, teachers don’t just teach, but enrich.
So watch out if you care more about where Miley Cyrus will be appearing this weekend than whether or not Americans can reconcile their disconnect about helping one’s fellow man. Should Killer and Snooki mistakenly find themselves in a theater showing this exquisitely highbrow confection, the culture shock could very well fade their tattoos.
Luckily, as my esteemed detractors will verify, Mrs. Goldberger didn’t impart a thing to her little boy if not a good sense of snobbery. Thus it is easy to slip into the ermine-lined empathies and notions of those born into what is now rightly seen as a land of make believe. Portrayed with a healthy sense of noblesse oblige, their example is elevating.
Colin Firth as the title character is, well, entirely regal, and yet still credibly naïve when it comes to the art of introspection. He has been taught only the royal way. Smartly portraying his loving wife, who sagely procures Logue’s connection to the vox populi, Helena Bonham Carter is likable as the stately yet sweet Queen Elizabeth.
Credit writer David Seidler (“Tucker”-1988) for handing director and cast a reasonably accurate script peppered with just enough wit and charm so as not to put us off the historically important gist. While it all takes place in just a few quite staid, yet artistically imagined sets, filmmaker Hooper nonetheless creates an emotionally limber fluidity.
Call it smart action…the provocative ruminations creating an intellectual motion of the mind. Thrusting and parrying in life’s big chess game, king, commoner and realm thrash about their differences, attempting to find concord in a foreboding world that increasingly challenges their traditions. The very concept of tolerance undergoes a dramatic scrutiny.
Personal sidelights of the dueling protagonists complement the primary plot. Dr. Logue, although boasting a long list of therapeutic successes dating back to the shell-shocked fellow Aussies he helped after WWI, nonetheless dreams of flexing his plosives and consonants on the stage. Mr. Rush creates his affable progressive with notable aplomb.
Likewise, in addition to the fine technical achievement rendered to show ever-so-slight gradations of improvement in his condition, Colin Firth fashions a convincing new wrinkle on the old, poor little prince angle. You know: Oh, that he could live his life as a normal human being. Sympathize or not, the point is well made that happiness is relative.
The backdrop to these engaging contemplations, nothing less than the pageant of world history, reminds of the aura and atmosphere Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory sought in their storied collaborations. There is an implied pomp, an anxious weight inherent to the circumstances. Ensconced in the catbird seat, we can’t help but feel smug in our interest.
Let the philistines worry who the biggest loser is, what the DNA results mean to Jerry Springer fans and what sad soul Mr. Trump will send to crushing defeat. We have bigger fish to fry. Citizens of the world and defenders of the throne, for an enlightening moment we graciously turn our attention to the civilized eloquence of “The King’s Speech.”
“The King’s Speech,” rated R, is a Weinstein Company release directed by Tom Hooper and stars Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter. Running time: 118 minutes
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