I have nothing against period films. In fact, as of late, my preconceptions have been proven quite wrong about a lot of them ("Bright Star", for example). Still, it does take quite a bit of prodding to get me particularly excited about seeing one. I knew I had to see "The King's Speech" because of its awards buzz and the three lead actors whom I quite like, but I wasn't as enthusiastic to see it as, say, "Black Swan". It seemed like it could have fallen apart - the World War II subplot seemed stuffy, the "inspirational" subtext a recipe for an Oscar bait disaster. But as usual, I was proven completely wrong - "The King's Speech" is really a treasure of 2010.
The film tells the true story of King George VI (Colin Firth), known more commonly in the film as Bertie, whose speech impediment caused him great angst amongst his family members, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), and the people of the United Kingdom. After failure after failure with speech doctors, Elizabeth decides to hire a rather avant-garde speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), to try one last time to cure Bertie of his problems. The narrative puts the backdrop of impending war on the progression of Bertie's work with Logue.
Director Tom Hooper realizes completely that film is a visual medium and uses this to his utmost advantage. Every room and costume is impeccably and beautifully designed (to be expected from a period film, after all). Then there's the cinematography - perfectly framing every moment of dialogue, the camera shakes and moves with Bertie, focuses in and out on his quivering mouth as he struggles to get out a word, focuses completely still on a single glance from Elizabeth. The masterful direction is what gives this film such a power - we feel so completely and so perfectly the tension and the frustration when Bertie is stammering.
Another art that Hooper has evidently mastered is that of the montage. The speech exercises montage near the middle of the film is so fun, so revealing, and ultimately, so effective. Later on, as Firth gives the film's titular speech, the combination of Beethoven's music and the use of different shots makes the scene one of the year's best. Speaking of music, Alexandre Desplat does wonderful work as usual, though I consider this some of his lesser work. Of course, it's lovely - and the fusion of Beethoven into the score is smart and moving.
But one cannot even begin to speak of "The King's Speech" without mentioning the brilliant acting on display here, especially from Rush and Firth. Rush gives Logue such subtlety, such nuance and such character that even the smallest eyebrow raise or mouth twitch tells us a wealth of things about his character. His audition scene, near the beginning, is absolutely marvelous and though I haven't seen Christian Bale yet, I'm wont to say that Rush deserves the Oscar. Firth's King George is a brilliantly layered creation and that stammer is perfect. It's as if it comes not from his vocal chords but from the bottom of his soul, from the inner depths of his persona. He uses it more here, less there and ultimately dissolves completely into the character, making us forget he's acting at all.
Overall, "The King's Speech" does exactly what a film is meant to do - it tells a story, a great story, and it tells it with finesse, skill, beauty and charm. It's an ultimately inspiring film that absolutely belongs in this year's Oscar race and will hopefully be remembered for years to come as a period piece that stood up to its hype.
See it: If you're following this year in cinema at all, if you want to be genuinely inspired, if you want to see a couple of the best male performances of the year, or if you like good montages.
Skip it: If you'd go solely for Helena Bonham Carter. She's quite fabulous as usual, but the film doesn't give her too much to do - this is Firth and Rush's movie.