The King's Speech is a very traditionally made film, arguably to the point of being Oscar-bait -- English period dramas, when done well, are rarely ignored by the Academy. But it offers plenty of the unexpected, which, when taken together, easily make the film worthy of its clear aspirations.
It may be more common to Brits, but few Americans have a ready knowledge of King George VI's stuttering problem, or that it was an issue exacerbated by his totally unexpected ascension to the throne. It was not a position he wanted, but he was given no choice after his father died, and then his older brother abdicated the throne less than a year later in order to be able to marry his American (from Baltimore, of all places) mistress.
This, of course, meant a great deal of public speaking, particularly now that radio had become common. And it petrified Albert (who was not known as George until he became king, apparently), who already had to deal with some public speaking as the Duke of York.
One of the many pleasantly unexpected things about The King's Speech is the casting of Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth, the Duchess of York (the woman known through most of her life as the Queen Mum). Carter is far better known as a villain, or at least as someone in many roles in darker films -- she's in a relationship with Tim Burton, after all; and she has been in several of his more twisted movies. The King's Speech couldn't be further from Tim Burton's sensibility, and the role does not really ask much of her other than constant looks of sympathy, and yet the casting is still inspired.
No role is better cast, however, than Colin Firth as Albert/The Duke of York/King George VI. Firth did a superb job in last year's A Single Man, and yet this performance is notably more impressive. Truly, the Academy might as well just give him his award right now.
It's no easy feat to spend nearly an entire film stuttering and yet still be thoroughly engaging. Audiences at Albert's public speeches spend a fair amount of time looking away in awkward embarrassment for him; we cannot help but to feel sympathy and to root for him. This alone is a testament to Firth's performance.
With the aid of his wife, Albert enlists the help of a local speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian with an attitude toward royalty that could be described as irreverent at best. He uses this attitude, among other things, as a means of provoking Albert -- and in so doing, goading eloquence from him. There's a great sequence where Albert discovers that he doesn't seem to stammer when he's swearing, and so he lets loose on a long and creative string of vocal vulgarities. It's easily the one and only thing that would garner the film an R rating. There's no sex or violence whatsoever.
Albert and Lionel systematically become friends, as Lionel ends up the only person in whom Albert can confide. He starts his speech therapy before his brother's abdication of the throne, and continues it well into his time as king.
Of course, the plot has to have the traditional temporary falling-out and subsequent amends; it's just the way a by-the-book story is written. The two offend each other somehow; they spend some time apart; it's hardly a spoiler to say there is inevitable reconciliation. It's not even a spoiler to say that King George VI eventually manages a well-spoken radio broadcast, at a time of great need when the country is headed into war with Germany. But this story is so skillfully told, not only does it transcend its by-the-numbers structure, it still puts your heart in your throat as you wait for him to make that all-important speech.
And every speech that Colin Firth makes, whether it's meant to be a live broadcast or it's just a private conversation with one other person, you can feel Albert's agony, see it marching across his face. Firth does it so well it's hard not to believe it's real. The King's Speech offers plenty of solid supporting performances -- not the least of which is Geoffrey Rush -- but this is really Colin Firth's movie, as he is placed at the center of a fascinating story and given an acute challenge, which he rises to readily, just as did the character he plays.