King George VI’s (Colin Firth) most fearsome enemy is the one he cannot seem to shake: his own voice. The accidental king — forced to the throne after his older brother David (Guy Pearce) abdicated to marry a multiply divorced American, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) — looks at every moment petrified of what will not come out of his mouth. His disastrous speech at the 1925 Empire Exhibition at Wembley validates his worst nightmares. Firth’s mournful eyes say it all: The king believes that that a man who cannot speak well is a man whose voice matters very little, crown or no crown.
The limited focus does wonderful things for Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech,” an irreverent, whimsical and refreshingly unsappy portrait of a monarch often dwarfed by the scandal preceding his coronation. The story of David and Wallis’ courtship had all the fireworks, but on the sidelines King George VI fought a tougher and more psychologically damaging battle. Hooper narrows not just the focus but the camera as well. Despite the regal grandeur of the surroundings, “The King’s Speech” is not epic in appearance. The shots — particularly those of the king’s funereal march to the Wembley microphone — are tight and narrow, all staircases at odd angles and boxed-in rooms, while the close-ups of Firth’s face are designed to emphasize his worried mouth and eyes. Fanfare and impersonality is what we expect; intimacy is what we receive.
A smaller scope works nicely for Firth’s unlikely king. who grew up belittled by his older brother (who called him “B-B-Bertie,” cruelly mocking his stammer) and singled out by his father, King George V (Michael Gambon), who believed punishment and sternness could conquer Bertie’s impediment. He was wrong, and so have been the many speech therapists who have worked with Bertie. His concerned wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, marvelous) hears of a therapist with unorthodox methods, a failed Australian actor named Lionel Logue (the ever-impish Geoffrey Rush). Logue has techniques that fly in the face of all Bertie finds respectable: He calls the would-be king “Bertie,” refuses to make house calls, wins a shilling from Bertie in a bet that he’s relentless about getting back. Unaccustomed to informality and extremely uncomfortable talking about his personal life, Bertie lashes out. But it’s not long before Logue’s good humor catches hold, and Bertie and his therapist build an unlikely friendship based on mutual respect. (Though the scene where Logue has Bertie shouting obscenities like a Tourette’s patient may suggest otherwise.) Logue, in fact, turns out to be the one person who refuses to tell the soon-to-be king anything but the truth, regardless how hard it may be. Hooper makes a convincing case that it was Logue who gave Bertie the confidence to rule.
There’s an elegant symmetry between the cinematography and the slow growth of Bertie’s character. The more he opens up and the more confident he becomes, the wider the camera opens up. It’s a subtle shift, but an important one. “The King’s Speech” never achieves the sweeping look of, say, “Elizabeth,” or similar regal period pieces, but visually the camera appears to give Firth more space as he transforms from a frightened man in the wings to a leader. Even though his speech — after the 1939 declaration of war against Germany — takes place in a small box, there’s no longer a sense that the king is trapped inside it. Pearce, Carter, Rush and Firth all play important parts in this metamorphosis. Pearce is at ease with David’s cockiness, and Carter proves she can brilliantly handle parts that don’t require her to look like she’s escaped from a mental ward. She is a loving figure, and fiercely loyal. Watching Rush and Firth go toe-to-toe is every bit as thrilling and funny as fans of both would expect. Rush brings mirth, compassion and stubbornness to Logue. Firth’s portrayal of King George VI will continue to garner nominations galore, no doubt, and they all hinge on what the actor can do with his eyes. What he holds in with his stiff posture he expresses sublimely with those eyes. Windows to the soul indeed.