It's easy to shrug off awards films when the season rolls around, and on the surface, "The King's Speech" shows all the symptoms of shameless Oscar bait. It's a period drama loaded with stiff English accents, led by a cast of previous Academy Award winners and nominees. In all honesty, the average moviegoer doesn't have a whole lot to be excited about in Tom Hooper's new film, but those compelled by the idea of a character study detailing the relationship between King George VI (Colin Firth) and his impertinent speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) will find this an often lively and effective drama.
The speech angle is an interesting distinguishment. Unlike many of the films that helped lend the genre its dry reputation, authentic atmosphere doesn't substitute for drama here. "The King's Speech" works not because we watch a historical personage overcome a debilitating verbal ailment, but because we watch a human being do so. Colin Firth has received much kudos for his performance, but it's likely many honored him for the wrong reasons. Firth is excellent because he humanizes George VI—making him rounder than some haughty profile—not because he can act with a stammer.
Rush plays his counterpart with absolute authority. We get a sense of the coddled life George leads as a prince, and the implicit respect he garners from the countless instructors he's worked with before. Logue, who operates out of the basement of his shabby apartment building, is the first to deny George (or Bernie, as he presumes to call the future king) special treatment. His cheeky remarks and irreverent lessons occasionally offend, and the nature of their relationship is often antagonistic. The one thing His Royal Highness can't argue with, however, is the results.
The greatest filmmaking fault then, out of necessity, is that "The King's Speech" must divide its time between these enlightening lessons and more typical period drama affair. The impending death of King George V and a scandal between Prince Edward and an American divorcee play major roles in shaping the narrative arc, though are significantly less interesting to watch. In merely retelling history, Hooper loses the character-driven force that makes the one-on-one therapy segments so special. Outside of Logue's office, "The King's Speech" becomes just another stylistically restrained biopic.
The speech lessons, by comparison, free the director up. Probably there is no official record of what was said between George VI and Logue, and the scenes are infinitely better for it. "The King's Speech" is almost a different film when released from the short reigns of history. The two characters come alive, as does the camerawork, exclusively in these instances. The difference isn't jarring enough to make the film feel disjointed, but there is scarcely a memorable moment that doesn't involve Logue.
On the whole, "The King's Speech" goes above and beyond most uninteresting but extravagantly decorated period films. The performances elevate the material beyond biography regurgitation, and by focusing on his characters above the historical events they instigated, Hooper avoids the most popular pitfalls of the genre. Ultimately, his film is still one caught between two worlds, and the balance struck between them isn't always perfect. The great atmosphere he creates within the context of the speech lessons is his own antagonist—he can't match that energy elsewhere.
But even being intermittently captivating, "The King's Speech" is absolutely worth seeing. It's not exactly what I would consider award-worthy, but that seems to be the only context in which such a film will be seen by most. In all honesty, you'll be better off ignoring the hype and seeing the movie simply because it features an unusually intimate portrait of a king, and a compelling story of personal triumph. Oscar who?