Great Acting Articulates Film’s Human Drama

Friendships often involve people from similar walks of life.  It’s what bonds us to those in our social circles, the chance to swap stories about PTA conferences, mortgage bills and the latest vote on “American Idol.”

The friendship between the man who would be king and his unorthodox therapist in The King’s Speech is another beast entirely.

The King’s Speech isn’t a great film, despite critical huzzahs to the contrary.  Its story arc is too predictable, its view of the 1930s-era monarchy too pleased with itself.

The performances, however, make this “Speech” soar beyond its stately trappings.  Colin Firth, playing the flustered future king, should clear some space on his mantel for a new, gleaming knickknack.  He may have lost out on a Best Actor Oscar last year to Jeff Bridges, but he shouldn’t be denied this time around.

Firth stars as Albert Frederick Arthur George, the second son of King George V of Britain (Michael Gambon).  Dubbed Bertie by his closest friends, the soon-to-be King George VI suffers from a stutter that makes speaking a chore.  He’s tried every possible remedy without improvement, so when his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), hears of an unorthodox speech therapist, she arranges an appointment.

Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) is a peculiar one, all right.  He insists clients follow his directions to the letter and do so within the confines of his depressing office.  When he meets Bertie, he tells him in no uncertain terms those rules apply to him, royalty be darned.

The stakes of Bertie’s speech lessons spike when Bertie’s brother (Guy Pearce) is forced to relinquish the throne due to a romantic scandal.  Now, as England edges toward war with Germany, the people need a strong leader to rally around.  How can Bertie inspire his countrymen if he can’t put two words together without stammering?

What’s most irresistible about The King’s Speech is how it builds the main friendship, scene by scene, and often sentence by sentence.  Bertie is a relatively gentle man, but he’s used to special treatment and isn’t easily cajoled into doing things he doesn’t want to do.  Lionel is just as stubborn, so sure of his methods he can’t imagine a soul rejecting them.

They need each other all the same, and watching them spar over cultural differences while letting their defenses down is invigorating.

Firth gives a studied performance without flaws, one in which the physical tics never overshadow the man or his position in British society.  Rush could have easily overplayed his hand, falling back on theatrical flourishes to complement Firth’s stiff demeanor.  Instead, Rush grounds Lionel and let’s us into his thought processes.

They’re so good together, you’ll wish a new Oscar category could accommodate them them—Best Acting by a Duo.

The King’s Speech builds toward its rah-rah conclusion, and it’s a parade of lump-in-your-throat moments Firth carries with dignity.  The facts behind the narrative have recently come into question, but there’s no denying this flick delivers two of the best performances of 2010.

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