The downfall of many films about royalty, particularly the British monarchy, is that they portray the individuals involved as either being stuffy and completely out of touch with the common man, or touchingly human and (surprise!) just like the rest of us. Rarely are they allowed to be fully formed characters with shades of gray that find them both out of touch and human. If for no other reason than the fact that it remedies such a stereotypical approach, The King’s Speech would warrant polite applause. That it also functions as an engrossing drama about the demands of leadership in the face of crippling self-doubt makes it more than the highbrow Oscar-grab that it initially appears to be.

The Duke of York (Colin Firth) has several problems that manifest themselves as one big problem: he stammers helplessly when nervous. Being second in line to the throne of the British Empire behind his playboy brother, David (Guy Pearce), it would seem that the Duke — Bertie, to his family — could simply make the occasional public appearance, wave to the crowds, and stay out of the limelight. Unfortunately, his forceful, belligerent father, King George V (Michael Gambon), is determined to make the stammer go away by forcing Bertie to make public speeches. Having been to see all the best, most highly recommended speech therapists and finding no success, Bertie is understandably skeptical when his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), takes him to see Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an irreverent speech therapist and amateur actor. But Lionel’s unorthodox techniques (using anger, profanity, and singing to break through Bertie’s mental blocks) pay dividends.

When David’s romance with a married woman threatens his ascent to the throne and the second World War looms, the public pressures on Bertie become almost unbearable, causing him to have severe setbacks in his therapy. Thrust into the seat of power and dealing with the devious political nature of those who would try to use him for their own ends, Bertie (now King George VI) finds the only people he can trust, as war nears, are Lionel and Elizabeth. But will Lionel be able to cure Bertie’s stammer in time for his first wartime speech to the Empire?

What is pleasantly surprising about The King’s Speech is that it takes subject matter that could have been a maudlin Lifetime movie and turns it into a thematically rich tale, full of subtle humor and humanity. While the main thrust of the film deals with Bertie’s speech impediment, director Tom Hooper and writer David Seidler are just as interested with exploring the psychological toll that being born into royalty takes on the family members. Bertie is arrogant, full of self-righteous rhetoric about his superiority, but at the same time, he’s painfully aware that he knows nothing about the people he is supposed to lead. On the surface, he’s afraid of his own shadow because of the alternately chilly and frightening behavior of his father (at one point, he confesses that the people he was closest to when growing up were his nannies), but he maintains a quiet strength that shines through when angered or pushed to consider the fact that he’s more fit to rule than David. As the film plays out, it becomes obvious that the kind of abuse and neglect he suffered in his upbringing could have destroyed a lesser man, let alone one who could someday be king.

However, those same pressures pushed David in an opposite direction. Outwardly gregarious and successful, he allows himself to be bossed around by his lover, eventually giving up the throne to live an ordinary life. Where some would look at him as something of a coward, I felt sympathy for the man. While his character does not get the screen time or the chance to air his feelings in the same way as Bertie, one can infer that he went through much the same treatment as a child. Yet, the upbringing that George V thought bred strength and character actually made him reject the life for which his father groomed him.

In the end, Bertie and Lionel’s relationship form the heart of the film. As they help each other fill a need in the other’s life, their relationship becomes a tricky mixture of psychological therapy, speech therapy, and difficult friendship. It sounds trite to say that Lionel helps Bertie to better understand the common man, but that aspect of the script is present. What helps it go down easier are the pitch-perfect performances by Firth and Rush. Firth is so good at portraying pent-up emotions under a stoic demeanor that he is able to show the pain and frustration bubbling constantly below Bertie’s regal exterior. Rush, who is capable of chewing the scenery with the best of them, plays expertly off Firth’s subtle performance. He’s energetic without being hammy, able to find the humor in even the most basic of platitudes, which he’s occasionally forced to deliver.

Terrifically acted by a cast of the best British and Australian actors currently working, the eventual predictability of the screenplay is not as big of a problem as it often is in historical dramas. When the acting is combined with Danny Cohen’s crisp cinematography and Hooper’s breezy direction, The King’s Speech turns out much better than most Oscar bait films that clutter the theaters every December. It avoids sermons and delivers as character-based entertainment that doesn’t pander. Those are always admirable qualities in my book.

Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.

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