Tom Hooper’s respectably solemn, crowd-pleasingly good-humored historical feature The King’s Speech is already being hailed in many quarters as the front-runner for this year’s Best Picture Oscar; Time recently started a write-up with the line “The Oscar race is over.” It’s easy to see why: Speech hits all the right marks. The historical setting (beginning in 1925 Britain) is rendered with handsome detail but reasonable restraint. Colin Firth gives a riveting central performance as a noble underdog with a crippling handicap and a wry, self-effacing sense of humor. The film’s central friendship, between Firth as Britain’s King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as his speech therapist, is troubled enough for drama, but redemptive enough to provide uplift. But The King’s Speech goes that critical step further. In spite of all the calculated awards-bait trappings and the starched tone, it’s a pleasure to watch. Firth brings such tension and frustration to his role, and Rush meets him so adeptly as his social and psychological foil, that the entire film crackles with the discomfort they bring to the screen, and the sweet relief as they begin to find their way together.
Firth begins the film by stepping up to a microphone as if going to the gallows; as the second son of King George V (Michael Gambon), he’s expected to make public addresses using the new medium of radio, which simply heightens his lifelong humiliation by bringing his awkward stuttering and choked speech to a far larger audience. After a series of failed attempts to ameliorate the problem with vocal coaches, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) pairs him with unconventional Australian Geoffrey Rush. Firth initially takes offense at Rush’s liberties—among other things, he insists on calling his subject “Bertie” and treating him as an equal—but Firth gradually unbends under Rush’s calm, implacable style and unflagging good humor.
The relationship is more unconventional than the film; director Tom Hooper (The Damned United) peppers his feature with manipulations, from swelling music to painfully intimate close-ups to heartstring-jerking shots of Firth’s sad-eyed subjects humbly hanging on his every word. And a late-film disruption between Firth and Rush comes at the most narratively overwrought moment imaginable, straining credulity in the name of conventionality. But Firth is unmissable as he paints his character in layers upon layers, with his helplessness, pride, misery, and wrath apparent in every hitching syllable and self-hating joke. The King’s Speech is admirably free of easy answers and simple, happy endings; it’s a skewed, awards-ready version of history, but one polished to a fine, satisfying shine.