British films that make it to American screens these days often fall into two distinct niches: life is miserable and life is sweet (to borrow a title from the director Mike Leigh, who oscillates between the two). Given its quality headliners and high commercial profile, its no surprise that The Kings Speech, a buddy story about aggressively charming opposites — Colin Firth as the stutterer who would be king and Geoffrey Rush as the speech therapist — comes with heaping spoonfuls of sugar.
The story largely unfolds during the Great Depression, building to the compulsory rousing end in 1939 when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, world calamities that dont have a patch on the urgent matter of the speech impediment of Albert Frederick Arthur George (Firth). As a child, Albert, or Bertie as his family called him, the shy, sickly second son of King George V (Michael Gambon, memorably severe and regal), had a stutter debilitating enough that as an adult he felt compelled to conquer it. In this he was aided by his wife, Elizabeth (a fine Helena Bonham Carter), a steely Scottish rose and the mother of their daughters, Elizabeth, the future queen (Freya Wilson), and Margaret (Ramona Marquez).
Albert meets his new speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Rush), reluctantly and only after an assortment of public and private humiliations. (In one botched effort, a doctor instructs Albert to talk with a mouthful of marbles, a gagging endeavour that might have altered the imminent monarchical succession.) As eccentric and expansive as Albert is reserved, Logue enters the movie with a flourish, insisting that they meet in his shabby-chic office and that he be permitted to call his royal client, then the Duke of York, by the informal Bertie. Its an ideal odd coupling, or at least thats what the director Tom Hooper would have us believe as he jumps from one zippy voice lesson to the next, pausing every so often to wring a few tears.
To that generally diverting end, Albert barks and brays and raps out a calculatingly cute string of expletives, including the four-letter kind that presumably earned this cross-demographically friendly film its R. With their volume turned up, the appealing, impeccably professional Firth and Rush rise to the Acting occasion by twinkling and growling as their characters warily circle each other before settling into the therapeutic swing of things and unknowingly preparing for the big speech that partly gives the film its title. Before you know it, Elizabeth (Bonham Carter), the future dumpling known as the Queen Mother, is sitting on Berties chest during an exercise while he lies on Logues floor, an image that is as much about the reassuring ordinariness of the royals as it is about Alberts twisting tongue.
It isnt exactly Pygmalion, not least because Hooper has no intention of satirising the caste system that is one of this movies biggest draws. Unlike The Queen, a barbed look at the royal family after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, The Kings Speech takes a relatively benign view of the monarchy, framing Albert as a somewhat poor little rich boy condemned to live in a fishbowl, an idea that Hooper unwisely literalises by overusing a fisheye lens. The royals problems are largely personal, embodied by King George playing the stern 19th-century patriarch to Logues touchy-feely Freudian father. And while Albert initially bristles at Logues presumptions, theirs is finally a democracy of equals, an angle that makes their inequities go down in a most uneventful way.
Each character has his moments, instances when Bertie the closed book tentatively opens and Logues arrogance gets away from him, but both are too decent, too banal and the film too ingratiating to resonate deeply. Alberts impediment certainly pales in comparison with the drama surrounding his older, popular brother, David, later King Edward VIII (a fantastic Guy Pearce), and his married American divorcée, Mrs Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). After King George V dies, David assumes the crown and continues to carry on with Mrs Simpson, a liaison that, because of its suggestively perverse power dynamics — at a party, she orders the new king (yoo-hooing David) to fetch her booze — hints at a more interesting movie than the one before you.
That film does have its attractions, notably in its two solid leads and standout support from Pearce. Mercurially sliding between levels of imperiousness and desperation, he creates a thorny tangle of complications in only a few abbreviated scenes, and when his new king viciously taunts Bertie, you see the entirety of their cruel childhood flashing between them. By the time he abdicates in 1936, publicly pledging himself to Mrs Simpson (the woman I love), turning the throne over to King George VI, Edward has a hold on your affections. Those would surely lessen if the film tagged after him when he and Mrs Simpson subsequently took their post-abdication tour around Germany, where they had tea with Hitler and the Duke returned the Führers Nazi salute. Like many entertainments of this pop-historical type, The Kings Speech wears history lightly no matter how heavy the crown.