Verdict: History with character
History is unexceptionably twisted in this confident and extremely likeable drama about the battle to beat the speech impediment afflicting the man who would go on to become King George VI.
As David Seidler's screenplay tells it, the 1936 death of George V and the abdication of his elder son Edward VIII later the same year to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson left a leadership vacuum, just as the clouds of war were gathering. And the man destined to step into it couldn't string one sentence together.
In fact, Albert, Duke of York, as he then was, had been largely cured of his affliction by 1927, after a famously inarticulate speech at Wembley two years earlier. But it's easy to forgive dramatic licence employed to such excellent effect.
Hooper, who made the surprisingly good The Damned United, eschews any pretensions to historical pageantry - we see a two-man rehearsal for the coronation, but not the event - and instead creates a touching story of an unlikely mateship.
The duke's rescuer, Lionel Logue (Rush, quite superb) is a winningly irreverent speech therapist who practises out of basement rooms in Harley St. He's approached by wife Elizabeth (the woman we would come to know as the Queen Mother) who is in search of a cure for the man she calls Bertie.
It's the first of several scenes brought brilliantly to life by Seidler's zinger lines. Elizabeth (Bonham Carter), introducing herself as "Mrs Johnson", says her husband's job involves a lot of public speaking and he can't change jobs, as Logue suggests. Logue: "What is he, an indentured servant?"; Elizabeth: "Something like that."
It's typical of the film's approach, which presents its characters not as historical exhibits, but as three-dimensional humans. Bertie, whose affliction has been treated by a variety of expensive quacks with ideas like forcing him to speak through a mouthful of marbles, slowly emerges as a man crushed by an remote and overbearing father and living in the shadow of a handsome and charismatic elder brother. Logue, for his part, is a deeply humane individual - he sees past his patient's royalty and, indeed, is indifferent to it but he has to overcome Bertie's reluctance to do the same. It's part pas de deux, part battle of wills and it's electrifying.
The film's far from flawless: Pearce's Edward (a strange piece of casting) is underwritten to the point of opacity and Spall's Winston Churchill is a panto caricature who, serving no discernible dramatic function, could (and should) have been dispensed with. And after the climactic challenge is faced down, the self-congratulatory smiling goes on a bit.
But Firth's Oscar-worthy performance is heartbreakingly good, evoking the clammy terror (a much-multiplied stage fright), the pig-headedness, the fragility and the dignity of a man simultaneously besieged by handicap and ambushed by history. And Rush's Logue, confident in his craft and quite unintimidated by his patient, is genial and entertaining. It's a handsomely mounted, finely acted and, above all, intelligent drama that puts flesh on the bones of historical figures.
Cast: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall
Director: Tom Hooper
Running time: 118 mins
Rating: M (offensive language)