Thursday, December 23, 2010

'The King's Speech' delivers fine acting*

If you're looking for entertainment that bolsters the hope that the British aristocracy, given sufficient prodding and pressure, is capable of real nobility, The King's Speech might be just your cup of tea.

If you're a movie fan, the best reasons to see The King's Speech -- aside from the heavy Oscar push that surrounds it -- are the performances of Colin Firth, as stammering King George VI, and Geoffrey Rush, as Lionel Logue, the self-proclaimed speech therapist who helped the king overcome his stutter.

As directed by Tom Hooper, the movie strives to show how national symbols -- a monarch, for example -- can provide rallying points during times of severe crisis, in this case the approaching ravages of World War II. King's Speech also offers a fair measure of humor as it pits George's patrician personality against the brash methods of a commoner (and an Australian at that) who comes off as part therapist, part self-help guru and part provocateur.

George's story takes place against a backdrop of once-scandalous drama. George, known as Bertie to members of his family, did not aspire to rule. He took the throne reluctantly in 1936 when his older brother, King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), abdicated so that he could spend his life with a twice-divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).

Firth conveys all of George's difficulties of speech, but supplement them with wit, insecurity and, most importantly, intelligence and judgment that emerge even when the words don't. Evidently, George was teased by his siblings and bullied by this father, King George V (Michael Gambon).

Childhood traumas aside, the future king had a heightened sense of duty and an understanding of royal responsibility that may have eluded his brother. The final scene in which tutor helps student give a famous war-time speech stands as a moment of tastefully orchestrated, crowd-pleasing inspiration.

Tellingly, George's big speech seems almost quaint when compared to the way in which information spreads around the globe today. In the late 1930s, people huddled around their radios to listen to speeches that united them in moments of fearful expectation. And no group of gabbers appeared immediately afterward to dissect every word.

Working from a script by David Seidler, Hooper creates the right blend of palace ambience and ordinary life, and the scenes between Firth and Rush -- the real heart of the movie -- are carried out with wit and barb.

As Queen Elizabeth -- the mother of the current queen -- Helena Bonham Carter conveys a mixture of pragmatism, common sense and wifely devotion that's bracing in its let's-get-on-with-it spirit.

W Timothy Spall appears as Winston Churchill; Derek Jacobi has a nice turn as the Archbishop of Canterbury; and Claire Bloom appears briefly but effectively as Queen Mary, wife of George V.

The King's Speech may be kept from greatness by something we might call a misproportioned sense of history. As Hitler prepared his malicious assault on civilization. it's necessary to remember that the world faced far more important and profoundly unsettling issues than one man's struggle with a speech impediment.

So for all is Oscar-wrothy cache and its heavyweight cast, The King's Speech remains something of a footnote to history -- nicely rendered, but a footnote nonetheless.

*The King's Speech opens in Denver Christmas Day and is now working its way around the country.

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