There is a reason why the first thing we see in Tom Hooper's The King's Speech  is an almost menacing close-up of a microphone. That sets the tone for the film: it will be about speech and the hurdles one had to triumph over in order to find the voice that will inform and connect people. At the time the film is set, which is that decade of troubled peacetime before World War II erupted, this newfangled technology -- really an extension of the human voice -- has become a necessary disruption to the ways that things have always been done. As Prince Albert's dying father King George V wearily tells him, it was no longer enough to just sit on a horse and look like a monarch to rally a nation; with the microphone, one had to speak to them like you were a guest in the hearts of their homes. Alas for Prince Albert, who is played with convincing nobility and frailty by Colin Firth, that reality is the stuff of personal nightmare: he has a bad stutter.
In the beginning scenes of Hooper's film, we view with increasing trepidation a demonstration of that debility: he speaks, in behalf of his father, to a huge crowd gathered for a Commonwealth event at Wembley, and as he begins to deliver the speech to a microphone in front of him, we cringe with pity and mortification. The question becomes: how do you become an effective ruler of a nation if you don't have a voice that your people can rally around?
Fast-forward to a scene in Buckingham Palace, after the coronation of Prince Albert, now renamed King George VI, who becomes an unwilling monarch after the abdication of his brother to pursue love in a divorced woman. The family is watching a film newsreel capturing the coronation ceremonies in Westminster Abbey. When that segment ends, the reel segues quickly to a report of Hitler speaking with such animated oratorical power to the German masses. We see a magician at work: Hitler's forceful words sounds like an opiate, and the crowd responds accordingly. The young Princess Elizabeth turns to her father and asks him: "What's he saying?" And the king replies: "I don't know but ... he seems to be saying it rather well."
And there you have it, the film in its thematic nutshell: the world will be won by one who has the voice. If evil is eloquent and persuasive, and the only one who can stand in its way keeps tripping over his tongue, can evil triumph? Which is why the drama of the film ultimately leads to the king's first wartime speech -- something ornate and persuasive and lasts 10 minutes for full delivery. (Listen to the real thing on the clip below.) He is to deliver it over the radio to the rest of the country, to people hanging on to his words to get a feel, if not comfort, of the challenges to come and the heroism required of them as the dark days of war loom ever closer. It is a formidable task.
But there is Lionel Logue, an Australian actor who has claims for curing people with speech defects, played with such wit by Geoffrey Rush. The film tells the story of his adventures in elocution with the future king, chronicling the unique methods they use to overcome the central debility of the story. The final speech becomes their most dramatic project, and when it comes, you will... But I won't divulge anything more.
One has to see this brilliant film to appreciate this true story, something Mr. Hooper has done great service in the way he has directed it to a film with a heart and a unique musicality, with honors to composer Alexandre Desplat and a fine use of Beethoven's Symphony 7 Allegretto Movement No. 2. Mr. Hooper makes us care for the people whose stories we see here, and Mr. Firth, Mr. Rush, and Ms. Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth extend that by embodying the roles with such clear-eyed empathy. We become fully invested in their dilemmas, and so when we get to the end, their triumph becomes our own as well. I have never cheered this way for a speech before, but cheer I did. You will find yourself cheering for the rest of this wonderful film as well.