The King’s Speech: Do it, Bertie!

With about a trillion Golden Globe nominations and a Best Actor for Colin Firth already under its belt, what IS it about the story of a royal speech impediment that has us all feeling so many dang emotions?

Sometimes, you’ll go to a party and a person you’ve never met before tells a brilliant story that has the entire crowd held in rapt attention. Then, the person has to go, and the party doesn’t really ever pick back up. On your way home, one of you brings up the charming stranger, and at the memory, you both smile, feeling like you’ve been carefully covered in a warm blanket. Some people are like that — they spread good feelings wherever they go while inadvertently building a following of individuals who aren’t able to clearly articulate their reasons for their devotion.

The King’s Speech is exactly that person, but its subject, King George VI of Britain, certainly isn’t. At first glance, the premise of the film doesn’t lend itself to visions of standing movie theater ovations. It’s the eve of World War II, and the Duke of York, second in line to the throne, is afflicted with a stammer that cripples both his public speaking skills and his overall confidence. A monarch’s struggle to overcome his impediment and deliver the stirring speeches for which his father has become famous is interesting, to be sure, but one wouldn’t expect high levels of tension, suspense, and exhilaration.

Top-shelf filmmakers and actors can (and should) make fantastic movies about absolutely any subject. And when a screenplay like this one (written by David Seidler) is directed by Tom Hooper and stars actors who take their jobs very seriously (Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, and Geoffrey Rush), the result is a perfect film that is, yes, about a king’s stammer. Of course, that’s not all it’s about. It’s about family, marriage, duty, overcoming obstacles…all that stuff we have to deal with every day, mixed in with some royal stuff that we don’t.

So why exactly is The King’s Speech so good? More of a study in subtlety than Black Swan (the only other film for which I can remember feeling a full five stars’ worth of enthusiasm in the last couple of years), this film is almost a mathematical sum of its parts. The acting, particularly by Firth, who won a Golden Globe for it this Sunday and will almost surely win an Oscar next month, is the kind of acting that makes you glad the motion picture exists. Only on the big screen could we truly appreciate the panic, determination, rage, and gratitude that Colin Firth puts into the barely detectable movements of his tiniest facial muscles.

And with a script that moves along at a graceful place, George VI (or “Bertie,” as he’s called by the family) is able to take the time to unpack his dirty laundry and spread it out carefully to air. Hooper’s directing, too, is classical while still groundbreaking. Non-traditional framing and sometimes unexpected close-ups are interspersed with shots so beautiful they could be considered art and pauses so pregnant they could be considered Natalie Portman.

The King’s Speech didn’t win the Golden Globe for best dramatic feature,* but every time its name was spoken among the presenters, all a little pale and wild-eyed after their individual floggings by Ricky Gervais, the glittering audience burst into applause. The cameras on the floor reflected some of the most genuine smiles of the night during the moments that the film was receiving its due, and, like me, I bet a lot of them would be hard-pressed to explain exactly why it inspires such warmth. It’s much easier to point out what’s wrong with a film than what’s right with it, and I suspect that’s partly because when a movie like The King’s Speech ends, all you want to do is pull that cozy feeling up to your chin and revel in its exquisite filmmaking.

*I doubt it’ll win the Best Picture Oscar either, as The Social Network is so painfully relevant (not to mention a fine film). Plus, I suspect Black Swan fans are also The King’s Speech fans and will probably end up splitting the vote. It’s OK, everything will still end up being totally awesome and your life will change not one bit.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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