Some people think period films are the sleep-inducing equivalent of Nyquil.
It doesn't help that "The King's Speech" — opening Saturday in Wichita — is hardly an exciting title. But the film has been a festival darling, receiving critical accolades and racking up nominations as it heads into movie awards season.
Don't let the subject matter fool you —"The King's Speech" is anything but a snoozer. In fact, it's an enthralling drama with bursts of wry humor. It's also rousing in the way that against-all-odds films are. Even though this is a story about a king, it's also an underdog tale.
It wouldn't have nearly its emotional impact if not for the astounding performance by Colin Firth (an Oscar nominee last year for "A Single Man"), who plays Prince Albert, the Duke of York and son of King George V (Michael Gambon).
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It's the 1920s, and the British monarchy and the world are facing dramatic changes. King George V tells Bertie (as those close to him call him) that with the invention of the radio, it's not enough that the royal family be seen, they must also now speak to their subjects in masses.
This is a problem for Bertie. He's been plagued with a debilitating speech impediment since he was a child, and addressing people publicly frightens him. He keeps trying, but in vain, much to his own embarrassment and that of his father.
Standing behind him every step of the way is his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, in a wonderfully affectionate performance). She enlists the help of eccentric speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush, magnificently colorful and comical).
This is really what the film is about — the relationship between the two men.
Slowly, the reluctant Bertie participates in Lionel's unconventional, somewhat silly therapies, and eventually some progress is made. Through it all, the men get to know each other and even become friends, a new experience for Bertie.
But in 1936, King George V dies, making Bertie's playboy brother, Edward (Guy Pearce), the king. It's a job he doesn't want, and to further scandal, Edward insists that he will marry a divorced woman. He might as well have said he was going to marry a Martian.
That same year, Edward resigns from the throne, leaving a terrified Bertie to become King George VI. He's reluctant, but not just because of his speech problems. Hitler's regime is gaining power as turmoil erupts around Britain. Bertie grapples with his sense of duty and his wavering confidence.
But when war is at Britain's doorstep, the new king must address his subjects and the world via radio.
Bertie and Lionel rehearse the speech, but there is little time. Finally, Bertie must overcome all the pressure — internal and external — and just do it.
Director Tom Hooper (who has worked on other period pieces, including HBO's "John Adams") makes the speech itself incredibly suspenseful. We hang on every syllable, and Firth should win an Oscar for this scene alone. It's a profoundly moving moment.
In the end, though, what's most touching is the loyalty that develops between Bertie and Lionel. "The King's Speech" may be about words spoken, but sometimes the ones that needn't be said are the most meaningful.