"The King's Speech" fuses several genres into an unlikely blend. It's a lavish period piece about British rule in the years leading up to World War II, a buddy movie about two men of different social classes learning to get along, and a crowdpleasing tale of athletic triumph, complete with the requisite training montage. Director Tom Hooper focuses on the travails of Bertie (Colin Firth), the son of King George V (Michael Gambon), future king of England, and notorious stutterer. Hooper turns history into formula: Can poor Bertie gather the nerves to address his people when duty calls? Under the fervent guidance of speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), will Bertie overcome his verbal obstacles for the sake of the throne? Take a wild guess on both counts.
Despite its familiar ingredients, however, "The King's Speech" maintains a muted tone, normalizing a rather peculiar footnote to the bygone days of the British government. Firth and Rush work marvelously together, generating an amusing "Odd Couple" chemistry that's unabashedly theatrical, but the movie holds little appeal beyond the scenes they share. Bertie and Lionel could have their own TV show; by contrast, Bertie and his supportive wife (Helena Bonham Carter) are a cold, mechanical couple, much like the rest of the royal family. The other twists of the plot, which involve Bertie's carefree brother Edward (Guy Pearce) briefly assuming the throne before abandoning ship to marry an American woman, and Bertie's growing awareness of Hitler's threat to Europe, take on secondary roles. Nothing matters more than Bertie's quest to finish a sentence.
So he works hard at it. Watching Lionel goad Bertie into singing his thoughts and finding his verbal rhythm by ecstatically screaming vulgarities (the sole reason for this tame drama's R rating) provides a series of cheap thrills. Hooper's feel-good storytelling recalls Jeffrey Blitz's "Rocket Science," which revolved around a stutterer engaged in high school debate competitions, but the sunny vibes seem out of place in the context of British royalty.
Hooper's efforts are further hampered by a continual literal-mindedness. The repeated use of fish-eye lenses to capture an atmosphere of psychological entrapment grow tiresome after a few scenes. We're never given much of a sense for his evolution as a ruler, so when he discusses his responsibilities, the aspirations ring hollow. "The nation believes that, when I speak, I speak to them," he says. Since he's never shown making crucial decisions as the king, Bertie comes across as just a mouthpiece -- albeit a broken one.
The real star of the show is the radio, as demonstrated by the reverential opening shots of a microphone from various angles. Technology becomes the democratizing force that brings the leaders down from their pedestals to face the country. "We must invade their homes and ingratiate ourselves to them," gripes Bertie. When he finally does that without faltering, "The King's Speech" briefly obtains emotional weight. Hooper shows the faces of unidentified citizens from across the country, all deeply absorbed by their king's proclamation of war. The ramifications of his words register in their joint concentration, but the compelling montage arrives too late in the game. When the emphasis shifts from the king to his subjects, it turns out that the last two hours mainly serve as a prolonged introduction to the final five minutes.
criticWIRE grade: B