On the surface, one could practically write off Tom Hooper's The King's Speech as something custom-made for the Academy's voting body to gobble up. Not only does it have (real life) royals, but one of them also has a disability; it's the sort of thing that AMPAS loves to cozy up to with a bucket-load of nominations. And that's likely to happen with The King's Speech, although in this case, it would overall be well-earned.
The basics are as follows: The Duke of York (Colin Firth), long-afflicted with an awful stutter, is forced to become king when his brother (Guy Pearce) abdicates the throne, all while Europe gears up for a second world war. To help, his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) seeks out an unconventional Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), to help the future king overcome his speech impediment.
We haven't seen this particular story before, but we've seen this type of story done to death, in countless variations. So how exactly do Hooper and his crew succeed? Frankly, it comes from honesty. The film could have gone for easy crowd-pleasing by having 'Bertie' (the duke's personal nickname) completely overcome his stutter during the runtime of the film. Of course, that's not what happened, and David Seidler's screenplay avoids the easy ways out. When it comes to the the titular speech, Firth doesn't charge forth through the words and deliver them flawlessly, but rather goes through them realistically. And by emphasizing the difficulty involved with treating an almost life-long affliction, The King's Speech actually soars, instead of being hindered. And while the film moves at a stately, at times too stately, pace, Firth's pauses and stammers never become irritating or gimmicky to the point that they distract the viewer rather than convince. Do we feel uncomfortable for Bertie? Absolutely. Parts of the film's opening scene, in which the Duke botches a speech in front of a massive stadium crowd, are almost painfully awkward, but never to the point where the film itself becomes awkward or unpleasant.
Of course, a great deal of this also has to do with the great talent involved. Coming off of the energy built from last year in A Single Man, Colin Firth really gets to shine as the future King George VI, and makes him so much more than a monarch with a stutter. Every bit his equal is Geoffrey Rush, surprisingly toned down but every bit as lively as usual. The two together make one of the best acting pairs of the year, and the film's success is largely rooted in their chemistry. Lending supporting in a handful of scenes is Bonham-Carter as Bertie's wife (and future Queen Mother). Were the role larger, I'd suspect that the Best Supporting Actress race would already have its winner, but as it stands, Carter has enough to work with to make a small-yet-lovely impression.
The film also benefits from handsome production values and a lovely score by Alexandre Desplat, along with Hooper's assured hand in the director's chair. And Seidler's screenplay, while in spots a little choppy, manages to hold one's interest both in dramatic moments and in a few moments of laugh-out-loud humor. Unfortunately, in trying to cover a surprisingly long stretch of history, the film short-changes certain aspects; the abdication subplot isn't given as much time as it probably deserves (in fairness, it probably deserved its own film). But most, if not all, of the issues of the script can be forgotten (temporarily) when the film clicks, which it does quite often. It's not quite kingly, but Hooper's film is old-fashioned, enjoyable cinema worth the price of admission.