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Royal Road to Learning

The King's Speech (2010)

Laurie Sparham/The Weinstein Company

The English royal family in a period film is a tried-and-tested setting for the British to examine their feelings about difficult subjects such as class, grief, entitlement, sex and the rights of women. These movies are also easy to sell internationally. To these ends, there has been a long parade of "royal" films — "The Young Victoria," "Elizabeth," "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" and "The Madness of King George" among them. While "The Queen" is the only one that has addressed any of these issues in a contemporary setting, "The King's Speech" is yet another period piece, albeit an expertly constructed. From another angle, it is an update of "Mrs. Brown," with Geoffrey Rush playing Billy Connolly and Colin Firth in the Judi Dench role — although there is even less sex in this movie than there was in that one.

In the 1930s the Duke of York (Mr. Firth), known to his family as Bertie and eventually to history as King George VI, was the "spare" younger brother with a terrible stammer. With the endless support of his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), he sees every specialist possible before finally meeting Lionel Logue (Mr. Rush), an Australian working from a Harley Street (the location where private doctors have traditionally practiced in London) basement.

The Duke's need to speak clearly becomes more pressing after the death of George V (Michael Gambon) as it becomes clear that his older brother Edward VII (a nearly unrecognizable Guy Pearce) will choose unpleasant American divorcée Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) rather than his kingdom. But how can a king address his subjects if he stammers — especially when he must give them the confidence to face the upcoming war?

Logue insists on informality, equality and for the Duke to discuss his feelings, and it's difficult to know which is more horrifying. But since Logue's methods work where all others have failed, the Duke keeps coming back despite his discomfort. The appropriately lavish production design by Eve Stewart is based on an unusual color palette of browns, whites, reds and golds, but claustrophobic camerawork makes it clear director Tom Hooper was working on a budget. Apart from one walk in a park, the movie never opens up externally — although no doubt this has to do with the challenges of filming a period piece in modern London. But cinematographer Danny Cohen fails to make the most of it, such as in the repetitious montages of Logue's sessions and the separate framing shots of every main characters against dramatically patterned wallpaper.

When you're telling a story about people as well-documented as the English royals, it's difficult to achieve a fresh outlook; and unfortunately Mr. Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler don't quite succeed. All the sneering about Wallis just makes one look forward to the Madonna-directed biopic of her coming out next year. And a fair few of the therapy sessions are just like Hugh Grant's vocal exercises in "Four Weddings and a Funeral." It also seems presumptuous for a movie about the roll-up to the second World War to be concerned with one man's ability to speak clearly. The fact that this movie exists shows that the English class issues have yet to disappear. Where are the movies about Winston Churchill, for example? The last one, "Young Winston," was made in 1972.

As stoical, nervous Bertie, Mr. Firth does shine, and his place in the hearts of English women and Austenites everywhere is even more firmly assured. Mr. Rush dials down the ham in one of the calmest and most sympathetic performances of his career. Character-actor stalwarts including Derek Jacobi, Jennifer Ehle, Timothy Spall and nine-year-old Ramona Marquez give expert support. And in her first traditional period role since 1997, Ms. Bonham Carter manages to capture the spirit of the Queen Mother and balance her strict respect for protocol with a warmth and openness both for her family and others whom she meets. But "The King's Speech" would have been a lot more likable if it wasn't clearly aiming for Oscar glory. It's probably going to get it, meaning even fewer films about regular English people are likely to be made. Its timing is also a little bit lousy. In the current climate, when the British government is scrapping its statutory responsibilities to the disabled, single parents and the unemployed without making cuts which affect higher-rate taxpayers in the same way, England is long overdue a conversation about class and entitlement without tripping over its words.


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