Here's something that didn't come up in any of the history lessons we had at school. George VI, King of England from 1936 until his death in 1952 and dad of Queen Elizabeth II (the current one, in case you were wondering), had a crippling speech impediment, namely a stutter. This would be inconvenient in any line of work, but it's a particular pain when you're as public a figure as George, aka Albert Frederick Arthur George, aka Bertie. (And if that's not confusing enough for you, his brother was Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, also known as David and, briefly, King Edward VIII.)
Set in the 1930s, The King's Speech unfolds during a period of major political turmoil. Hitler is gaining power in Europe, it's becoming clear that another world war may be on the way and there's unrest in Westminster as a result. But this isn't a political drama, and it's certainly not a costume drama. Some scenes touch on the events of the time, but these add colour and context, rather than taking over the narrative. The real story here is that of how Bertie (Firth) attempts to overcome his stammer with the help of unorthodox Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Rush) – indeed in many ways, it's a buddy movie. And Logue certainly existed in real life, and did indeed treat Bertie, although who knows if he really got him to shout swear words at the top of his voice.
The film is largely a two-hander, although Helena Bonham Carter provides strong support as Bertie's wife, Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon, who you'll likely know as the late Queen Mother, and it's a sensitive study of a man in turmoil. This king's anguish is personal: after a miserable childhood in which he was bullied and ridiculed, he's still unable to ever relax or become comfortable in his own skin, saddled as he is with taking the throne after his brother David (Pearce) abdicates in order to marry Wallis Simpson (which is a whole other story).
And it's a hugely sensitive portrayal of the realities of trying to overcome a speech impediment. While some of Logue's methods are amusing (swearing, singing, tongue-twisters) the film never pokes fun at the impediment itself, always allowing Bertie to finish his sentences instead of cutting him off, as happens to so many stammerers in real life. Okay, so it ignores a lot of the wider political and historical events that are unfolding, choosing instead to focus only on Bertie's confusion as to the purpose of being on the throne in the first place. He's supposedly a figure of authority, yet he has no say over anything. But chances are that The King's Speech would have derailed if it had tried to mix politics with the very personal drama of Bertie's relationship with Logue.
What works less well, however, is the way it meanders on into the events of World War II, somehow implying that Bertie's improved public speaking abilities mean he's perfectly well-equipped to handle things, when in fact Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain would go on to resign in 1940 (again, that's a whole other story).A venerable Brit cast provides great bit-support, including Spall as Winston Churchill and Gambon as Bertie's terrifying father. Rush is superb, and as for Firth, while he's not exactly playing against type (self-deprecating Englishman who lacks confidence) it's still one of his best performances, alongside A Single Man. The King's Speech is hugely enjoyable, and it's certainly no surprise that it's already got people whispering about possible Oscar nominations.
EXTRAS ★★★ An audio commentary with director Hooper; the making-of featurette The King's Speech: An Inspirational Story of an unlikely Friendship (22:48); a Q&A with the director and cast members Bloom, Pearce, Bonham Carter and Firth (22:02); speeches from the real King George VI, including the King's Pre-War Speech from September 3, 1939 and his Post-War Speech from May 14, 1945; an interview with Mark Logue, grandson of Lionel and co-author of The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy(17:18); the theatrical trailer; production sketches; a photo gallery.