Colin Firth & Geoffrey Rush excel in story of Britains King George VI overcoming stutter at a critical moment
Lost in the dustup over "Tropic Thunder" and its use of crude epithets for the mentally challenged was the movie's canny critique of awards-tailored acting.
In a key scene, Robert Downey Jr.'s Oscar-savvy actor explains the fine points of playing mental/physical handicaps to Ben Stiller's lunkheaded action star.
Audiences and academy voters, he says, don't want to see a technical replication of a particular affliction ("I Am Sam"), they want the artist to suggest the disability, and play the character ("Rain Man," "Forrest Gump").
It is with that in mind that we see an Oscar in the future of Colin Firth, who in "The King's Speech" plays George VI (Bertie to friends), England's wartime monarch, in the tumultuous months leading to his controversial coronation and England's entry into World War II.
There are obstacles between Bertie and the throne - his older brother Edward VII (Guy Pearce) is first in line, and Bertie is simply defeated by public speaking.
In the movie's gripping first scene, we see just what a monumental roadblock this is for poor Bertie, who attempts to address a stadium full of his subjects, and fails due to a serious speech impediment, a stutter he's had since boyhood.
British citizens look on with polite and deferential shock, Bertie's wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) averts her eyes, and you can see her supportive heart break just a little.
At this point, it's a minor national embarrassment. Bertie can handle ribbon cuttings and library dedications, and his older brother can inherit the throne. But when the king (Michael Gambon) dies and Edward abdicates for love (mined here for a rich vein of comedy), Bertie is suddenly in line.
And, with Hitler on the move, war on the way, and radio broadcasts looming as an essential tool in preparing the nation's psyche for the ordeal ahead, Bertie's problem is suddenly of royal and national import.
As conventional attempts to "cure" him fail, Bertie's wife begins looking for an unconventional therapist, someone with a record of success, even if he does not have establishment bona fides.
She finds one in Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) a cheeky Aussie provincial, not a physician, not an academic, but a frustrated actor who learned, after World War I, to treat the stress-related speech impediments of shell-shocked Australian soldiers.
What develops is an irresistible highbrow buddy movie, with the rude commoner throwing protocol to the wind, hacking through Bertie's snobby royal exterior to cure the wounded ordinary boy underneath.
Can Bertie be cured? Can he and Lionel be true friends?
There is no suspense in this, but there is much to enjoy in the performances. Rush is one of our best character actors, and Firth is perfect for this. The former Mr. Darcy excels at playing the chastened blue blood, and he's obviously assimilated Downey Jr.'s "Tropic Thunder" actors' metric - his stutter is never a technical device, always the embodiment of a man struggling to express himself.
The movie's backstory is also moving. Screenwriter David Seidler overcame a stutter, and while he's long wanted to dramatize the condition by revealing Bertie's suppressed struggle, he waited for the principals to die before telling, tactfully, their story.
As Lionel might have said, good on ya.
Produced by Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Gareth Unwin, directed by Tom Hooper, written by David Seidler, music by Alexandre Desplat, distributed by The Weinstein Co.