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This handsome movie about the abdication crisis and George VI's stammer is a clever anti-Pygmalion.
If this is to be the UK Film Council's swan song it's gone out on a high note, or rather a regal flourish of trumpets. Tom Hooper's richly enjoyable and handsomely produced movie about George VI's struggle to cure his stammer is a massively confident crowd-pleaser. What looks at first like an conventional Brit period drama about royals is actually a witty and elegant new perspective on the abdication crisis and on the dysfunctional quiver at the heart of the Windsors and of prewar Britain. It suggests there was a time when a member of the royal household experimented with psychoanalysis – disguised as speech therapy.
Colin Firth gives a warm and sympathetic performance as Bertie, the Duke Of York, an introverted and uncomfortable stammerer, bullied by his father George V, played by Michael Gambon, and overshadowed by his charismatic playboy older brother, David, a role dispatched with some style by Guy Pearce, incidentally putting to rest the overpowering memory of Edward Fox in the part. Helena Bonham Carter is Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, his robustly supportive wife who, with her intuitive sense of when and how to dispense with her own reverence for protocol, engages a new Australian speech therapist to help her despairing husband. This is the eccentric and undeferential Leonard Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush. Logue is a man who must cure his own demons – a sense of failure over never having made it as a professional actor – and who is everywhere patronised as a colonial.
The movie is a clever anti-Pygmalion. Where Henry Higgins had to get Eliza Doolittle to smarten up and talk proper, Logue finds his pupil has gone too far in the other direction: Bertie is too constrained, too clenched, too formal and too miserable. To untie his tongue he has to relax, but also to talk about what makes him unhappy, as he has never done with anyone in his life before. David, effortlessly debonair and stubbornly set on a marriage to Mrs Simpson, is going to thrust upon Bertie's shoulders the awful burden of kingship, which, in the new era of radio, depends on public speaking as never before.
The ensemble cast, led by Firth, Bonham-Carter, and Rush, includes Guy Pearce as the (future) Duke of Windsor, Anthony Andrews as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, and Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury.
I found the film absorbing and engaging, if not moving, and well worth a trip to the local, horrendous cineplex.
For contrasting reviews, see Roger Ebert's in the CHICAGO SUN-TIMES and Manohla Dargis' in the NEW YORK TIMES.
For an interview with the film's director, and some insight into the film's intriguing beginnings, see David Gritten's interview of director Tom Hooper, in THE TELEGAPH.