Photograph: Warren Toda/EPA
The King's Speech: an emotionally stirring Oscar magnet
In this triumphant British period drama, Colin Firth delivers a virtuoso performance which seems destined for gold-plated glory.
The Toronto film festival always tosses up a few early award contenders, and The King's Speech is the major Oscar-buzz beneficiary thus far. Critics applauded at the end of the first press screening – a rarity – while festival-going Torontonians have lapped up the crowd-pleasing delights of a British period drama which stirs the emotions to an almost ridiculous degree while avoiding the more stultifying pitfalls of the genre.
Accomplished in nearly every facet, Tom Hooper's film outlines the true story of King George VI (Colin Firth) and his struggle to overcome a crippling stammer, particularly after he ascends the throne following the surprise abdication of his brother Edward (Guy Pearce) in 1936.
The film is a triumph for Firth in particular, who had a surprise 50th birthday bash in Toronto the night the film was unveiled. Never mind blowing out 50 candles, though. Wouldn't he just love a belated, 34-cm-tall gift from his peers to bring home in six months' time?
The King's Speech hinges on the relationship between Firth's Albert (aka Bertie) and Geoffrey Rush's speech therapist Lionel Logue, a failed Australian actor given to performing hammy Shakespeare for his children. The prince and the commoner's initially fractious connection plays out like a sophisticated bromance, with Firth and Rush batting amusing banter back and forth with crisp relish. Helena Bonham Carter impresses too as Albert's doting, concerned wife, equally quick witted but a steelier proposition than her self-loathing husband.
Using heavy filters, Hooper moodily evokes a pre-second world war England of shabby, dimly lit rooms and characters wrapped in overcoats to fend off the indoor chill. Besides his three leads, he's also ably served by Michael Gambon as King George V, Anthony Andrews as prime minister Stanley Baldwin and Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill.
Only Guy Pearce strikes a slightly bum note: it's not that his performance as Edward is bad per se (he looks the part of the louche prince in thrall to American divorcee Wallis Simpson), but for a film preoccupied with speech, even the slightest hints of the actor's Aussie origins serve to annoy. It almost seems a form of revenge when Jennifer Ehle, as Logue's wife, wields the thickest Australian accent heard on screen since Muriel's Wedding.
This film belongs to Firth. With nearly every scene granting him a wet-eyed close-up as the traumatic origins of Albert's stutter are unravelled, his performance registers at a pitch that Oscar voters are bound to respond to. Count him a dead cert for a nomination, although it's too early to hand him the statuette just yet. He missed out this year for A Single Man after the sentimental vote swung it in Jeff Bridges' favour.
Firth's turn in A King's Speech is both stronger and more accessible than his grieving English professor, however, and the film ticks all the right boxes: an actor with a painful affliction to portray; a handsomely mounted history lesson that manages to be immensely watchable. If it can sustain its Toronto momentum at the London film festival and beyond, a best picture nod for Hooper's sublime yarn is surely on the cards as well.