God save the King -- from his stammering.
Colin Firth stutters, sweats and swears his way through British history -- and to a certain Oscar nomination for best actor -- in director Tom Hooper's blue-blood biopic of the man who would be King George VI. His accomplished performance as the Duke of York has tremendous range, from a tender moment spinning a bedtime tale to young daughters Elizabeth and Margaret to profanity-laced outbursts that unleash a lifetime of pent-up anger and anguish. Firth combines the understated style of his role in "A Single Man" with the showiness that Jeff Bridges unleashed in "Crazy Heart" to steal the golden statuette away from him last year.
From the opening moments, screenwriter David Seidler ("Tucker: The Man and His Dream") and Hooper ("The Damn United" and HBO's "John Adams") create tremendous sympathy for the second-born son of the gruff ruling monarch King George V (Michael Gambon). Prince Albert (Firth), called Bertie by his family, must deliver a radio address at Wembley Stadium in 1925. Like the proverbial elephant in a room, the massive radio microphone looms menacingly.
The new wireless invention has changed the image game: No longer can a leader appear regal by merely looking respectable in uniform and staying atop his horse. Now voice matters. And the terrified Albert is tongue-tied. He stutters. He stops. He spits out another word, each amplified and reverberating throughout the packed arena. His British stiff upper lip quivers in close-ups before Danny Cohen's camera captures down-turned faces among the crowd, looking away in pity and embarrassment for the humiliated speaker.
But there's more to Bertie's character than meets the ear. Firth conveys the man's resolve and his unwavering sense of duty and service to England. Public speaking is a requirement, so he and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) seek a cure. The heart of what could have been a too-proper period piece comes in the form of the relationship between the prickly prince and a congenial Australian commoner, the unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue, played to perfection by Geoffrey Rush.
As soon as Logue insists upon "My game, my turf, my rules," the interpersonal drama begins. Seidler's cheeky dialogue crackles as the two men test each other. Firth gives royal attitude as though to the palace born. Rush counters with his strong sense of self and human dignity. Soon grappling with the royal speech impediment goes beyond diaphragm exercises and singing words to the tune of "(Way Down Upon the) Swanee River." Class issues surface, and the line blurs between private and public lives.
With the exception of Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill (perhaps carrying too much Wormtail baggage from the "Harry Potter" franchise), the supporting cast is stellar. Guy Pearce plays Bertie's older brother Edward, who abdicates the throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), with a convincing blend of smitten suitor and sibling tormentor. Claire Bloom, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Andrews and Jennifer Ehle lend to the Masterpiece Theatre air.
Poignant and sure to please mainstream audiences, "The King's Speech" becomes an inspirational story of an individual who must stop stumbling over his words so that his subjects will hang onto every one of them in a time of crisis.
You can bet that Colin Firth will have plenty of chances to use his voice during the awards season.