Growing up in the shadow of his dynamic brother, Edward, in the early 1900s, expectations were low for Prince Albert of York. The family privately referred to him as “Bertie,” a name that did not seem very becoming of a man who was second in line to the throne. His father, King George V of England, was hard on Bertie, who suffered from a debilitating stammer, which left the King’s son positively speechless.
And even though Bertie went on to become a Naval officer, a loyal husband, and father, speaking in public was almost impossible and terrified him to the point of paralysis. If he were ever to become King, Bertie would have to overcome his disability at a time when the radio had emerged as a chief means for a leader to communicate with his people. And a stammer was not the way to usher in the communication age.
Beautifully crafted and containing the year’s best performance by an actor “The King’s Speech” was my choice for the best film of 2010. The backdrop I laid out in the previous paragraphs paints an interesting picture but maybe not one that would support epic treatment in a movie. And, yet, this seemingly small tale enhanced greatly by the fact that Bertie would become King, plays as big as any epic I’ve seen in the last decade. It is almost as if the very personal struggle of Bertie was reflective of the larger battle of England at a time when the empire was being supplanted by other growing forces, namely that of the rise of NAZI Germany. It is this context that makes a film like “The King’s Speech” historically important. It is one thing to read the Wikipedia entries about World War II and King George VI, but it is another to see them come to life in a way that almost anyone can relate to.
And darned if this movie isn’t grandly entertaining!
There has been much focus on Colin Firth as Bertie/King George VI. Over the years, Firth’s performances have just gotten better and better. Moving from Bridget Jones’ love interest to the tortured college professor who had lost the man he loved in 2009’s fantastic “A Single Man,” Firth has cemented himself as one of the most gifted actors working today. The odd thing about Firth is that he seems to have also become an unusual sex symbol of sorts—most women I know just love the guy the way I remember Michael Caine became “sex in specs.” In playing Bertie, the future King George VI, Firth finds a challenging role in a fabulous film that will likely be nominated for best picture. So often great performances get smothered by films that are beneath the performance, which causes folks to wonder whether the acting job is good or just better than the material. While this was certainly not true of “A Single Man,” that film’s limited audience reduced Firth’s chances of taking home Oscar gold. And let’s face it, 2009 was Jeff Bridges’ year.
But “The King’s Speech” is not just built around Firth’s fine work. Helena Bonham Carter is utterly charming as the future Queen Elizabeth; Michael Gambon plays the father King George V well; and Guy Pearce is deliciously selfish as King Edward VIII. But every bit Firth’s equal is Geoffrey Rush, who plays Bertie’s speech teacher Lionel Logue. It is the interaction between the two men, as student and teacher, physician and patient, and as best friends that unfolds like a bit of magic. Certainly Firth’s performance would not have been as heralded had he not been surrounded by such strong talent, but the close relationship of the two main characters, Bertie and Lionel, could not have been more perfectly portrayed. And this relationship is just so much fun to watch. On the other end of the spectrum, compare the painful interaction of the characters in “The Social Network,” the other film in 2010 vying for the top award. That movie, also about friendship, works because of the caustic relationships that develop. Both movies are about big issues, but use smaller personal ones to make us feel and understand the emotions involved.
In this modern communication age, it is surprising that a movie about the early stages of it can feel as fresh and important as “The King’s Speech” does. And in 2010, a year of so many great films, “The King’s Speech” rose to the top.