A powerful back story does not necessarily improve a movie, but "The King's Speech" has a pretty irresistible one. It might even end with a dramatic night at the Oscars in February.
First, the on-screen narrative: In pre-World War II England, Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth), suffers from a debilitating stammer. Public events, toasts, even one-word replies turn into gut-wrenching nightmares. Worse, he's about to become King George VI. But when Albert visits an eccentric vocal coach, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), he learns something new: The tongue is connected to the psyche.
If you've seen "Shine" or "Good Will Hunting" or any other movie about a dedicated teacher and a difficult student, you'll recognize the pattern in "The King's Speech." But it also offers some interesting angles. Logue, who insists on breaking down Albert's aristocratic facade, is surely the only commoner who calls the king "Bertie." At the same time, Albert recalls one of Shakespeare's reluctant royals, struggling to grow into his crown.
"The King's Speech" is briskly directed by Tom Hooper and often very funny. But Firth is the main attraction. Albert is hugely complex - victimized, defeated, confident, ambitious - and Firth makes it look effortless. He's also supported by a wonderfully engaging Rush and a satiny-smooth Helena Bonham Carter as the future Queen Mother.
The story is grounded in history, of course, and it was George VI's wartime radio addresses that inspired the screenwriter, David Seidler, to control his own childhood stutter. No pressure, but there could be an Oscar speech in his future.
Getting it right was a sound idea
For Colin Firth, and for director Tom Hooper, the biggest challenge of "The King's Speech" was getting King George VI's stammer right. Firth studied some existing early recordings of the king's voice, pre-therapy, but says that he was less interested in imitating the voice than in learning how it sounded. "I wanted to make it my own," he told The Seattle Times, noting that George VI was hampered both by his stammer and by "the tightness that so many members of his class and across the system suffered from, that terrible reserve."
The recordings captured the king on formal occasions. Firth said it was a source of much discussion in rehearsals as to what "Bertie" sounded like at home with his wife and young daughters, Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) and Margaret.
"There was an argument for saying that he barely stutters at all with his family," Firth told the Times, "and then Tom felt that lowered the stakes too much. If there's ever a time when he's free of it, it makes speech therapist Lionel] Logue's struggle a lot easier. I think you have to feel like there is no time he can escape, even a time when he's at his most secure."