We're introduced to the young Prince Albert (Colin Firth), who will someday be the father of Queen Elizabeth II, in 1925, at a British Empire Exhibition as he's about to address a packed Wembley Stadium crowd.
Make that as he's about to try to address the crowd. What actually comes out of his mouth is, "I have received ... a ... a ... ach ... a ..."
Before the invention of the microphone, a stuttering prince really needed to only stand up straight and look good in a uniform. But this is the age of radio, a medium that Albert's peremptory, domineering father, King George V (Michael Gambon), has been exploiting in well-received Christmas addresses to the nation. So the prince, who has stammered since childhood, is in despair.
Though a long line of experts has failed to make any headway, his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) persists in the optimistic view that someone, somewhere must be able to help her husband. When her search takes her to the basement office of an Australian speech therapist and failed actor named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), she realizes she has found someone who will at least take a novel approach.
Logue's notions about unlocking tongues with psychology are decidedly out of step with the era's conventional elocution theories. He insists on being in control, meeting even a royal patient in his office and on familiar terms. Calling Albert "Bertie," Logue tries to draw him out on the traumas that might have led him to have trouble speaking.
And while Albert resists, Logue soon has him singing tongue-twisters while dancing around his office, bellowing vowels out windows, swearing like a sailor and doing breathing exercises as his wife sits on his stomach. The prince's expression remains pinched, but you sense that he's actually starting to let his guard down, even have a bit of fun.
Almost more remarkable, he's tentatively embracing a friendship with a commoner -- something he's evidently never had. And he begins making progress, step by incremental step.
Alas, that's not fast enough. King George V dies, and Albert's brother, Edward VIII, ascends to the throne -- just long enough to abdicate and marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, without ever even having been officially crowned. And so reluctantly, in 1936, the terrified stutterer becomes King George VI, with a war looming that will not let him stay silent.
Director Tom Hooper, who crossed up sports-movie expectations in The Damned United, could here be said to cross up underdog-biopic expectations in what amounts to a high-toned, elegantly upholstered buddy flick. He bolsters his principals with first-class talent in the supporting roles: Derek Jacobi (himself a celebrated stammerer in I, Claudius) as an archbishop who waxes indignant when the commoner Logue makes suggestions about the coronation ceremony; Guy Pearce playing Albert's brother Edward as a self-absorbed playboy prince; Timothy Spall, jowls wobbling as Winston Churchill.
The director films microphones in ways that make them seem threatening, castles in ways that make them seem almost homey, and royals in ways that make them endearing, and he ends up with a film that's smart, lush and a lot more amusing than you'd expect.
But it's the relationship between the two men that makes the film work: Geoffrey Rush's teacher cracking the quip, and Colin Firth so persuasive as the panicky king that by the time he gets to his crucial speech about going to war, you'll be panicking right along with him. (Recommended)
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