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The King’s Speech

A speech impediment proves to be a royal pain in this excellent drama

Colin Firth stars as King George VI and Helena Bonham Carter stars as Queen Elizabeth.

At the close of the 1925 Empire Exhibition, England’s Duke of York Albert (Colin Firth: A Single Man) stands before a live audience for his radio broadcast debut. Instead of a refined address, the Duke broadcasts a halting stuttering address as his countrymen regard him in horror. 

This is the next in a long line of humiliations for Albert — called B-b-b-bertie by his family — who chokes on marbles and smokes heavily under doctor’s orders in attempts to cure his stammer. His sympathetic wife (Helena Bonham Carter: Harry Potter) aids him in clandestinely recruiting speech therapists for his embarrassing problem. In a dingy flat on Harley Street, the duchess meets Lionel Logue, (Geoffey Rush: The Warrior’s Way) an Australian actor and speech therapist who guarantees he can cure her husband.

And now the fun begins. 

Logue takes a hands-on approach to therapy: Insisting on calling His Royal Highness Bertie and asking questions about childhood traumas. So begins a physically intensive rehabilitation, as Logue puts Bertie through his paces. With some support from his wife Bertie jumps, rolls, screams, sings and curses a blue streak — all to ease the impediment. As his stammer slips away, Bertie drops his guard with Logue and delves into the childhood roots of his stammer. 

But just as Bertie’s speech improves, his life is upended yet again: Older brother David abdicates the throne to marry a Maryland divorcee.

Poor B-b-b-bertie is now king.

Inheriting a scandal-ridden throne, Bertie must win the confidence of his people. This becomes harder when Hitler forces England into conflict. With Logue and Elizabeth at his side, Bertie prepares for his most important public address: Declaring war.

Director Tom Hooper (The Damned United) creates a fascinating portrait of a royal who was trapped into becoming King. Bertie grew up under a microscope where any imperfection was unacceptable. Younger brother John was hidden from the public because of his epilepsy. Bertie is shown to be happiest away from the public domain, telling halting stories to his daughters.

But times they are changing, and the monarch isn’t just a portrait in the palace anymore.With the advent of radio and film technology, how can the British respect and revere a leader that can’t speak for them?

Hooper’s film revolves around Bertie finding his place as leader of his people. 

Firth is a wonder to behold as Bertie. He embodies both the physical and mental anguish of the impediment, drowning in words he desperately wishes to express. More than once, Firth had me squirming for him as he tried to choke out hard consonants. Rush, always excellent when he plays an eccentric, is wonderful as a wacky speech therapist determined to bring greatness out of the timid monarch. Bonham Carter turns in a surprisingly restrained and wry performance as Elizabeth.

Firth’s performance combined with Hooper’s subtle direction accomplishes the nearly impossible: They make an English monarch relatable and admirable in spite of his stiff and entitled behavior. In a screening packed with Americans, we collectively gasped, laughed and cheered for poor B-b-b-bertie to win the favor of his people. 

Long Live the King. 

Excellent Historical Drama • R • 118 mins.