What would the Christmas, pre-Oscar season be without a little middle-brow cotton candy from the brothers Weinstein? Destined for a handful of nominations (and probably a win or two), The King's Speech is the kind of well-acted, handsomely mounted, British period piece that seems more meaningful while you're watching it than it actually is. That, however, doesn't make it any less entertaining.
Taking its plot points from any number of underdog-triumphs-over-handicap sports flicks, the story of how Prince Albert, who became George VI (and was known as Bertie by his friends), overcame a childhood speech impediment to "lead" his country has class, history and witty badinage to buoy what is, at its core, a fairly contrived drama.
After an embarrassing address at Wembley Stadium in 1925, then-Prince Albert (Colin Firth), an uncontrollable stutterer, withdrew from public view while his indulgent older brother Edward (Guy Pierce) prepared to inherit the throne. Bouncing from one quack to the next, Albert's wife, Elizabeth (a winningly understated Helena Bonham Carter), eventually stumbles across Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a failed Australian actor and unconventional speech therapist who has developed an unorthodox but effective method of treatment. Though the two struggle at first — Logue doesn't make house calls and demands equality in his office — Albert slowly comes to accept his methods and starts to gain control of his handicap. As it turns out, his timing couldn't be better, as Edward abdicates the crown following a scandalous relationship with a twice-divorced American, and Albert is thrust onto throne as World War II is about to erupt.
The historical backdrop (which includes a cameo appearance by Timothy Spall's Winston Churchill) gives The King's Speech proper context but provides little more than colorful trappings for a standard issue wise-but-offbeat mentor meets petulant-but-misunderstood student narrative. Luckily, the blossoming relationship between Logue and the Duke of York provides plenty of warmth, humor and humanity as it moves from combative distrust to respectful friendship. Though their characters are fairly opaque, both Rush and Firth are so damn good that watching them parry and thrust their way through the relationship is worth the price of admission alone.
It's funny how quickly Colin Firth has gone from dependable utility actor to Academy Award shoo-in, given that it was only last year that he wowed critics with A Single Man. Here, again, he uses his buttoned-up sense of dignity as a foil for the tempestuous emotions that roil beneath. Only occasionally overplaying his stammer, Firth makes us feel the frustration, alienation and rage that his handicap has fed. Perfectly pitched between self-loathing and an inbred sense of privilege, he defies David Seidler's script and delivers an affecting three-dimensional character.
Rush, given far less to work with, proves his acting equal — but far more inscrutable. While he slyly injects the ambivalence of class resentment and conditioned fealty into Logue, his role mostly requires him to play the virtuous taskmaster, an exuberantly confident eccentric who embraces what others too quickly dismiss.
Directed with all the panache of a middle-of-the-road HBO production, there's little doubt that most audiences will find The King's Speech entertaining but easily forgotten. Its impeccable performances aside, there's little to support the Oscar-sweep predictions so many film critics are trumpeting.
Opening Saturday at the Landmark Maple Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111; and at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty Street, Ann Arbor; 734-668- 8463.
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