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Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter make an unlikely pair in The King’s Speech.
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★★★★★

The King’s Speech

Directed by Tom Hooper

Starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter

Rated R, now playing

It’s post-World War I England and George V (Michael Gambon) is an aging monarch with a domineering personality. David (Guy Pearce), the immature successor to the throne and the future King Edward VIII, will later abdicate in order to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Bertie (Colin Firth) is his younger brother, the Duke of York. When the time comes for Bertie to take up the title of George VI, the reluctant king must overcome his debilitating stammer and lead his people into war.

Enter Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a failed Australian actor-turned-speech therapist, whose first words in the movie are shouted from “the loo.”

Logue, whose credentials come not from a professional degree but from the experience of treating shell-shocked veterans, is just as interested in full-on psychological counseling as he is in the mechanics of speech. In a large, shabby basement that he uses as his office, Logue tests his unconventional methods against Bertie’s reluctance to talk about “personal matters.” Breathing exercises, jaw-wiggling, and rolling on the carpet are only the start to the years of treatment that follow. (The “R” rating, by the way, is because of 17 occurrences of the word “fuck” — all in a purely educational, speech therapy context, of course.) A friendship between Bertie and Logue develops, full of the complexities of class tensions, insecurities, and humor.

The King’s Speech walks a fine line between documentary and film drama. The movie portrays Bertie as the man who led England through World War II, but he spends just as much screen time as the Duke of York as he does as King George VI of England. Fourteen years chronicled in one movie could be a long time, but if you are willing to accept a Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) who still bears a little too much resemblance to Peter Pettigrew, the actors give an incredible amount of freshness to their roles. Helena Bonham Carter, with her empathetic gazes and ever-aristocratic manner, is superb in her portrayal of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Bertie’s wife. Eve Best plays a Mrs. Simpson who is simultaneously smooth and irritating. But most captivating are Rush and Firth, as they go head to head in those many scenes of therapy: Rush fires out one-liners with such nonchalance and Firth responds with temper flares and facial expressions repressed enough to rival Mr. Darcy’s.

The very intensity of The King’s Speech draws from the emotions below the top hats and perfectly tailored suits. For the film’s estates and palaces are equally as oppressive as they are opulent, and the relationships within them are very much real. Pure elegance is not the stuff of wealth and power, but rather the ability to create such a seamless marriage of wealth and unease, of power and dinginess. The King’s Speech is such elegance.