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Friday, Feb. 4, 2011

'The King's Speech'

For Britain's king, affliction is no impediment


The Prime Minister (ours) is on Twitter. That's basically a so-what situation given the present digital (and alas, political) climate, but a mere five or so decades ago, people in public office were much more selective about their methods of exposure. In fact, some of them had a definite aversion to speaking out at all, as "The King's Speech" so eloquently reveals.

The King's Speech Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Way with words: Colin Firth (center) as Britain's stammering King George VI. © 2010 SEE-SAW FILMS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Director: Tom Hooper
Running time: 118 minutes
Language: English (subtitled in Japanese)
Opens Feb. 26, 2011
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Directed by Tom Hooper and starring Colin Firth as Britain's King George VI, "The King's Speech" is deeply rewarding entertainment for the modern thinking person — that sizable but no doubt dwindling segment of the population that draws satisfaction from rustling the pages of a book instead of scrolling down the side of an iPad, or facing a friend across a table instead of seeing what everyone's up to on Facebook.

Not that the "The King's Speech" is a predictable ode to the way we once were. On the contrary, though steeped in the silky sepia tones of the 1930s, the film has an engaging buoyancy that releases it from the purely period/political. And much like the titular king, it hems and haws (albeit with excellent posture) its way through a muddled cloud of emotions that are at once both intensely personal and completely universal. You'll get a chance to observe a human state that's become increasingly rare in both cinema and the real world: genuine, undiluted embarrassment. Rash-inducing shame. Vulnerability exposing its scarred hide.

Sometimes it's all just too painful to behold.

On the other hand, this distinct celebration of the organic side of life strikes you with its beautiful mystery and inherent humor. You just don't see this sort of stuff anymore, along with flabby cheeks that wobble and flap from over the rim of a starched shirt collar, people getting into passionate arguments accented by tears and snot and spittle, the innocent, unconscious baring of bodily imperfections such as bad teeth and facial hair. "The King's Speech" is rife with such details, and compared with its proffered samples of lumpy humanity, life on the digital grid seems to have about as much depth as a bowl of soup.

As the title suggests, this droll little tale has to do with the speech (in more ways than one) of George VI (father of the current Queen Elizabeth), who reluctantly took over the throne from his dapper, playboy brother Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) when the latter abdicated in 1936 to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

George VI, formerly "Bertie" or Prince Albert, suffered from a terrible stammer since childhood. Even reading aloud from a book was fraught with trauma on a par with a gallstone removal. Cold sweats, abdominal pain, uncontrollable fury and acute self-loathing were just some of the symptoms on Bertie's speech-related laundry list, and it didn't help that his dad, George V (Michael Gambon), was a cantankerous old pill who bullied and reprimanded Bertie over his defects.

By all accounts, Bertie was achingly shy and an introvert with a will to be one. The British royals have their share of eccentrics, but Bertie's peculiarity seems to have been a sincere desire for invisibility.

It's the kind of role that's tailor-made for Colin Firth, aka the repressed Englishman, who can be summed up in two words: intensely anal. His lanky, underconfident presence is somehow intensely endearing, though. Bertie, though nowhere near as popular or charismatic as his bro, has the staunch love of his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), and finds an invaluable ally in his speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).

Lionel is an Australian and decidedly democratic in his approach; he insisted on calling Bertie "Bertie," never once deigned to use the word "sir" and, during a session at the palace, sat on the throne whenever he felt like it. Substitute the "L" in his last name for an "R" and that would about sum him up.

Accordingly, Lionel's methods of "curing" Bertie are unorthodox to say the least — having Elizabeth sit on the king's stomach ("This is quite good fun actually," she quips) as he lies prone on a stone floor, or rummaging through his childhood andor sex life, all with a view to getting Bertie in front of a microphone to deliver words that would inspire his loyal subjects.

Europe was teetering on the brink of World War II and the British public pined for encouragement that would enable them to face the threat of Adolf Hitler (who, by the way, was an excellent speaker). Of course, nothing prods an Englishman into action as well as a sense of duty to his country. Or at least, that was how Bertie was brought up.

Still, you get the feeling that under the stiff-upper-lip demeanor beats a heart that is as irascible as Eliza Doolittle's. She got her chocolates and a warm fire in exchange for those grueling speech lessons; Bertie got the wry, thorny friendship with Lionel. Maybe it didn't bring him the joy he had hoped for, but the sessions calmed his jangling nerves and dug out a reservoir of inner peace.


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