Working from the British-royalty-biopic template perfected by Peter Morgan (The Deal, The Queen), The King’s Speech provides a cute, complication-free portrait of the Duke of York (Colin Firth), who would eventually become King George VI of England, and his difficulty overcoming a lifelong stammer. Opening in 1925 to the sight of George addressing a Wembley Stadium crowd with halting bits and pieces of words, Tom Hooper’s film proceeds to chart the future king’s failed efforts to deal with his problem through kooky speech therapist sessions (one has him stuff marbles in his mouth), all while his father, George V (Michael Gambon), lambastes his younger son—after one of the King’s famous, eloquent Christmas broadcasts via the newfangled radio—to just speak, “dammit!”
As embodied by Firth, George VI is emasculated and debilitated by his disobedient tongue, which has made him at once a reticent figure prone to retreat into silence, and a furiously angry man driven half-mad by his handicap. Firth’s high-pitched stuttering voice only infrequently plays as an affectation, but even in those rare moments, the actor’s well-modulated, pent-up performance refuses to devolve into caricature. That makes it something of a triumph considering that, from its fundamental narrative building blocks on up to its particular one-liners, The King’s Speech remains a decorous bit of middlebrow mush.
Having previously worked with Morgan’s writing on The Damned United, director Hooper proves a competent fit for David Seidler’s Morgan-knockoff script, shooting the action in austere hues and with low-angled compositions in order to create a superficial sense of period-piece solemnity and significance. However, no amount of surface classiness or historical-bigwig cameos (hey, there’s Timothy Spall as Churchill!) can mask the contrived nature of the film, which pivots around the relationship between George and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an “unorthodox and controversial” Shakespeare-adoring speech therapist and failed actor who challenges George to not only train his body, but, more crucially still, to confront the root emotional causes of his stammer. These can be boiled down to “It’s the fault of my demanding daddy, bullying brother, and mean nanny!”
Yet despite such simplistic psychologizing, The King’s Speech barely buys what it’s selling. No sooner are these explanations introduced than they’re discarded, all so the proceedings can eschew true character development in favor of the jokey sight of George learning to enunciate through singing and cursing, the romantic shenanigans of his older brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce)—who assumes the throne and then relinquishes it to marry a twice-divorced American hussy, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best)—and the buildup to war with Hitler, whose threat to the U.K and, specifically, George, is epitomized by his mesmerizing oratory skills.
Through it all, George and Lionel develop a combative but respectful friendship that, following romantic-comedy dictates, starts out unevenly, then blossoms, and is eventually destabilized by a foolish act of betrayal and then saved in time for a heartwarming finale. Rush exuberantly expresses Lionel’s confidence and taskmaster bossiness, but, from an early lesson involving a phonograph recording to his assertive poise in the face of the Church’s archbishop (Derek Jacobi), who functions as the story’s nominal kinda-sorta villainous presence, he remains a two-dimensional cipher of impeccable virtue and noble intentions. The same holds true for George’s loyal wife Elisabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and, ultimately, George himself, whose intermittent furious outbursts mask such pedestrian—and easily resolvable—hang-ups that he comes across as more petulant than deeply pained.
No leaden symbolism à la The Queen‘s stag further weigh down The King’s Speech, a merciful development given how sluggish and reductive the material is to begin with, epitomized by both its eventual, one-dimensional conflation of George’s speech issues with the WWII effort and its glossed-over address of the radio’s role in transforming the ruler-ruled dynamic. Straining to elevate its real-life footnote of a tale into a meaningful fable about a man, and nation, “finding their voice,” the film manages to spit out merely high-minded sitcom uplift.