After Edward VIII abdicated the British throne in 1936 to marry an American divorcee and was succeeded by his brother, the royal family faced another embarrassment: The new king, George VI, had a severe stutter that made public speaking painfully difficult.
With the help of eccentric Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, however, he was able to overcome his handicap and inspire his countrymen with radio speeches during World War II.
The story of the unlikely friendship between commoner and king is told in “The King’s Speech,” a royal treat featuring standout performances by Colin Firth as George VI and Geoffrey Rush as Logue.
Impeccably written (by David Seidler) and directed (by Tom Hooper), the film spotlights a significant yet little-known chapter in U.K. history. Like “The Queen,” the acclaimed 2006 film about Queen Elizabeth II’s reaction to the death of Princess Diana, it humanizes a monarchy widely viewed as stiff and unfeeling.
Following his best-actor nomination for “A Single Man,” Firth could get an Oscar nod for the second straight year. His portrayal of the insecure, speech-challenged king is an exemplar of precise, beautifully restrained acting.
Instead of an exaggerated Porky Pig stutter, Firth gives a realistic impression of a man who becomes practically breathless while trying to talk, swallowing his words until they disappear deep inside his mouth.
Rush has the showier role, but he also tones it down to avoid caricature. Logue was a former actor with no formal training as a speech therapist who developed his therapeutic techniques while treating shell-shocked World War I veterans.
Logue teaches the king breathing and jaw-strengthening exercises, challenges him with tongue twisters and makes him speak while listening to music. He also explores the king’s prickly relationship with his father (Michael Gambon), who would shout “Get it out!” when his son stammered.
Logue, who began treating George VI before he was king, bonded with the monarch and his supportive wife (Helena Bonham Carter) by insisting on informality. He called his patient Bertie (his family nickname), joked with him and made the king come to his modest office rather than treating him at Buckingham Palace.
The only weak link in the cast is Timothy Spall, whose Winston Churchill lacks the physical and dramatic heft of the great wartime leader.
The story builds toward the king’s 1939 radio speech to his countrymen following the outbreak of World War II. It’s a stirring climax to one of the year’s best movies.
“The King’s Speech,” from the Weinstein Co., opens today in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: ****
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(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)