Colin Firth has had a long career as one of Britain's most recognizable actors, but the man seems to be hitting his peak at age 50. Following last year's Oscar-nominated turn in A Single Man, Firth extends his range even further, giving a tour-de-force performance as King George VI in The King's Speech. Firth may have been the dark horse last year, but this time around he (and the film itself) is the one to beat.
In this surprisingly funny historical drama, Firth plays Albert (the future George VI), the son of King George V (Michael Gambon) in the 1920s-1940s. Albert seems content with his life as a prince alongside wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), but he's plagued with a fear of public speaking. Afflicted with a stammer since his youth, Albert can hardly tell his daughters a bedtime story, let alone give a speech. His domineering father has no patience nor understanding for his son's problem, treating Albert's impediment as though it were something he could simply turn off or get over.
At his wife's urging, Albert sees a variety of speech therapists, but his hot temper and embarrassment get in the way of any progress. After he throws in the towel completely, Albert reluctantly makes an exception when his wife introduces him to one last teacher: an Aussie named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who isn't about to treat Albert any differently just because he's royalty.
As they say, it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship, so to find out why this movie shouldn't be missed just
David Seidler's screenplay is anything but a boring period piece thanks to a well-rounded cast of characters. Helena Bonham Carter's Elizabeth is confident and persistent without being annoying; her onscreen dynamic with Firth makes Elizabeth and Albert a couple that are truly partners in addition to spouses. Rush gets the majority of the big laughs with Lionel's unorthodox methods of keeping Albert's mind off his stammer at any costs. As Albert grows increasingly jaded and takes it out on his teacher, Lionel keeps a level-head, exposing Albert's often childish behavior and evoking unexpected laughs from the audience.
Director Tom Hooper takes us back in time with smoky black-and-white landscapes that almost feel like postcards come to life. He takes just the right amount of time in telling his story, utilizing his actors' talents by focusing primarily on characterization, as the plot slowly and naturally unfolds around them.
Perhaps Hooper's most effective camera work lies in the constant focus on Albert's face as he struggles to verbalize his thoughts. You literally can't take your eyes off Firth, as he gives the performance of his career. Though his stammer inhibits his character from expressing himself, Firth's eyes provide the window to his frustrations and you can see the effort required to put each sentence together. There's still a terrified boy living inside this man-who-will-be-king, a child who's been bullied and teased his whole life and lacks confidence in himself as a result. Albert is hot-headed and often painstakingly stubborn, but you never stop sympathizing with him.
The King's Speech is an inspiration because Albert's speech therapy not only helps him sound better, but it gives him the much-needed self-esteem to stand before England when the time comes for him to take the throne. The movie is a journey of sorts, from Albert's first botched attempt at public speaking as prince to his first public message as England's king. While it's an educational slice of history, the film works even better as a touching, compelling story about how friendship and trust can triumph over self-doubt.