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Dustin Putman

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The King's Speech  (2010)
2 Stars
Directed by Tom Hooper.
Cast: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall, Derek Jacobi, Jennifer Ehle, Michael Gambon, Claire Bloom.
2010 – 118 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 15, 2010.
"The King's Speech" features an all-British cast in a period drama based on historical fact. It's not as stodgy as it sounds—there is a sly sense of humor running throughout—but it is every bit the Oscar bait one might suspect. Is it worthy of its destined accolades? Not quite. Director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler have made a pleasant trifle, and that's it. It's blisteringly conventional, not at all hard-hitting, and leads to a crowd-pleasing finale more dripping in manipulative emotions than provocative thematic inference. Strip it down to its barest form, and what you have is a been-there-done-that sports movie with a speech standing in for "the big game."

When England's King George V (Michael Gambon) dies in 1936, the throne is passed down to eldest son King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce)—a reign that proves short-lived when he renounces the duty in order to marry his forbidden love, a divorcée. Next in line is his younger brother, the Duke of York, later King George VI (Colin Firth). Bertie, as he's called personally, is more than willing to take on the royal crown, but he is faced with one impediment that has plagued him since childhood: a stammer. Desperate to rid himself of this crutch so that he will be able to lead his country with authority, Bertie ultimately finds himself under the guidance of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist with forward-thinking methods that just might be the key to unlocking his vocal hurdles.

The real test of Bertie's positive strides was a 1939 radio address to his country following the start of World War II. As "The King's Speech" works up to this climax, director Tom Hooper approaches the material with a laid-back charm. The silly and antiquated (even by 1930s standards) instructions Bertie receives from doctors—one tells him to pick up smoking, as it will soothe his lungs and cure his stutter, while another fills his mouth with marbles and then tells him to talk—are greatly amusing. It is the unlikely friendship between Bertie and speech therapist Lionel, however, that is at the core of the story. Respectful of each other but also stubborn and set in their ways, there is the sense that these two people, separated by class and profession, would never have had a relationship were it not for the source of what brought them together. Nevertheless, it mutually works.

Colin Firth is uniformly fine as Bertie, aka King George VI, perfecting his character's stammer without overdoing it. Uptight because he thinks he's supposed to be, Bertie longs for a warmer rapport with his two young daughters—a subplot that is barely touched upon—and finally is released from a prison of imposed haughtiness when his speech training introduces curse words into the mix. As good as Firth is, his role demands upon few challenges; his devastating work in 2009's "A Single Man" was a great deal more complex and layered. As Lionel Logue, Geoffrey Rush (2007's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End") is a formidable match for Firth, the yin to his yang. Helena Bonham Carter (2010's "Alice in Wonderland") is left untested as Bertie's wife Elizabeth, steadfast and calm-headed and that's it. There is nothing wrong with what Carter does here; she's simply stuck in a bland role. One piece of miscasting that must be mentioned is that of Guy Pearce (2009's "The Road"), an actor of playboy attractiveness who bafflingly essays the part of Bertie's older brother. Pearce is seven years younger than Firth in real life and looks even more than that—a point of initial confusion for the viewer when, in the narrative, the throne first goes to Edward and not George. Firth isn't some old man, but he would never be confused for Pearce's baby brother.

Indeed, "The King's Speech" leads to the critical moment when King George VI must rise to the occasion and lead his people into a new phase of an era. That is all well and good, but let's not kid ourselves: the movie revolves around giving a speech, not about the literal actions of someone that could possibly change the course of history. In this way, the film is valiant yet paltry, a clear-cut, straightforward sports tale about talking rather than making a touchdown. "The King's Speech" is well-made and breezy, but no deeper than that.
© 2010 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman