It could have been a bunch of pip-pip, stiff-upper-lip Brit blather about a stuttering king who learns to stop worrying and love the microphone. Instead, The King's Speech — a crowning achievement powered by a dream cast — digs vibrant human drama out of the dry dust of history. King George VI (Colin Firth) — father of the present Queen Elizabeth — found his own Dr. Strangelove in Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a wildly eccentric Australian speech therapist who made it possible for the stammering monarch to go on radio in 1939 and rally his subjects to support the declaration of war on Hitler's Germany.
The King's Speech plays out on the battlefield of words, not action. Writer David Seidler (doing keenly insightful work partly owing to his own bouts with a stammer) had conceived the story first as a play. Before you can think the words "static" and "confining," be advised that director Tom Hooper, garlanded with Emmy dust for John Adams, Elizabeth I, Longford and Prime Suspect, breathes fresh, urgent life into every frame of this powerhouse. Hooper, 37, is a prodigious talent. The emotion this film produces is staggering.
Hooper begins in 1925, as the king, then merely Prince Albert, is trying to speak at the British Empire Exhibition. The words stick in his throat, and his silences between syllables fill the stadium. The prince's embarrassment is acute, and deeply felt by his compassionate wife, Elizabeth (a superb Helena Bonham Carter creates miracles with every subtle look and gesture), who goads him to visit Logue. His Highness goes into heavy snob mode in the presence of this commoner, who demands that they use first names. When Lionel first calls Albert "Bertie," Firth's poleaxed reaction is priceless. Lionel treats speech lessons like therapy sessions, pushing for details about life in the royal family. What he gets is a portrait of a blowhard father, George V (Michael Gambon), and a taunting brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce is absolutely stellar), who reduces the proud, vulnerable Albert to rubble by committing the one unforgivable sin: Edward abdicates the throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), leaving Bertie to succeed him. Suddenly, the man who would not be king most assuredly is.
Firth's nuanced brilliance is a thing of bruised beauty. Oscar-nominated last year for A Single Man, he gives a towering performance that deserves a shower of awards. And Rush is his match, fiercely funny in the hilarious and heartfelt interactions between king and commoner. Lionel is a failed actor given to grand gestures, and Rush chows down on this feast of a role, jolting the movie to life. Firth plays the counterpoint, the blue blood bred to hold it all together. It's uproarious to watch Lionel prod Bertie to lose his cool, forcing him to sing out a symphony of shit-fuck-bugger-me swearring (all stammer-free). Luckily, this release takes place in Lionel's home, where his wife and children are unaware of the royal patient. The scene in which Lionel's wife, Myrtle (Jennifer Ehle), meets the king has a special poignancy, if you remember Ehle and Firth as lovers in TV's Pride and Prejudice.
The King's Speech doesn't have the budget to show coronations and pomp, but it misses nothing in resonant intimacy. Hooper, with a Brit father and Aussie mother, throws himself into the scene in which Lionel stands like a conductor in front of the king as he delivers the speech of his life. Two men alone create an epic landscape of feeling in one of the very best movies of the year.