Firth Shines As Stuttering Monarch in ‘The King’s Speech’

To temporarily assuage the woes of the recession generation’s working class, writer David Siedle and director Tom Hooper transport us into the heartbeat of prewar England, where a man — who is supposed to have everything he wants — has been stripped of a voice.

World War II is bearing down upon the country, as a red-hot Hitler drums up the masses in support of his genocidal mission. Prince Albert, or “Bertie,” (Colin Firth) suddenly finds himself with a heavy cross to bear — the prestigious moniker of “King George VI”, bestowed on him when his brother David (Guy Pearce) abdicates the throne to pursue a romance with an American woman. Weighed down with the ever-growing sorrows and expectations of a nation, he struggles — with the help of his doting wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and speech therapist Lionel (Geoffery Rush) — to rid himself of a crippling speech impediment, and learn to speak on behalf of a nation.

“The King’s Speech” never makes the struggles of King George’s reign poignant enough to inspire sympathy for the burgeoning monarch. Instead, the focus is on Bertie as a man, not a king. He’s someone who is crippled by his inability to speak through years of childhood neglect.

As Bertie, Firth had considerable hurdles to overcome; inspiring sympathy for a character so frequently prone to bouts of mute rage (and rather unmuted rudeness) is not a small undertaking. Traditionally, speech impediments are seen as sources of amusement, or lack of intellect — children grow up watching the bumbling Sylvester the Cat lisp his way through cartoons. But with Firth on the throne, Bertie’s choked silence is never a barrier for emotion or prickly wit. He curses, laughs, confides, raves, tears and loves, mostly silently, occasionally set to a humbled stutter. Each word inspires an enigmatic passion; the actor’s face is drawn, then suddenly slack, riddled with the excruciating effort of breathing sound into his thoughts, his mind hastily moving forward before his paralytic mouth can recover. Rush’s Lionel is a well-penned complement — he is daring, stubborn and eloquent — but the spotlight decidedly belongs to Firth.

Most importantly, “The King’s Speech” is intimate. The banter is typically a volley between both men (and Carter, equally delightful, frequently gets in on the fun). At their first meeting, Lionel asks Bertie if he knows any jokes, to which he replies (after considerable stammering and delay), “Timing isn’t my strong suit.”

But for Firth, timing is everything. With last year’s “Best Actor” nomination in tow, his lively performance as Bertie might have the man taking the stage for a speech no one dreads — and walking away with a golden statuette in hand. (B+)

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