Movie Review: 'The King's Speech'

[Update -  Seeing as The King's Speech just won the Oscar for Best Picture at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, we though we'd re-run Germain's rave review from November. Review starts after the jump.]

Everyone knows the American Film Institute as the people who do the 100 Years series. But they're much more than that. They're a worthy organization who work not only preserve great cinema but also to teach a new generation to make great cinema of their own. Also, each year in they host their own film festival called AFI Fest which, in the past two years, has distinguished itself from most other major film festivals by giving away all tickets for free.

The location of the festival is pretty special, too, especially for film fans. It's located smack dab in the middle of Hollywood, so films play in some of the most famous movie theaters in the world. Take, for example, Friday night. I got to check out the highly buzzed about political period piece The King's Speech in Grauman's Chinese Theater, preceded by a tribute to not only director Tom Hooper, but stars Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush too, who were all in attendance. It was a very special evening thanks in mostly in part to a fantastic film. Read the full review after the jump and check back over the course of the week for more coverage from AFI Fest.

Most people have a hard time believing money or power wouldn't make them happy. We look at celebrities, politicians and billionaires and think their lives are perfect. Well, The King's Speech debunks that myth and then some. It gloriously dramatizes one small flaw in an incredibly powerful man and shows how it simultaneously cripples and humanizes him.

Colin Firth plays Prince Albert, the second son of King George V of England, who we first meet as he's about to address the entire world via radio for the first time. The year is 1925 so for the common person to actually hear a member of the royal family in their home is a big deal. But the Prince is nervous, hesitant. When he opens his mouth we realize why. The Prince stutters.

Flash forward some years and the Prince and his wife, played by Helena Bonham Carter, are still trying to cure the debilitating and embarrassing speech impediment. Finally, they happen upon Australian speech therapist Lionel Louge, played by Geoffrey Rush. A brash, confident and kind of goofy man, Logue's personality immediately clashes with the Prince's, but he produces results. The film continues from there.

The King's Speech isn't a straight forward doctor/patient relationship film, though. It disallows itself from going the simple In Treatment route because of the time period, film making and chemistry between the actors.

Historians know, and it's not a major spoiler to reveal due to the film's title, that Prince Albert – through some dramatic twists and turns – becomes King George VI, father of current Queen Elizabeth II, and that George was King during World War II. So, though the entire film is filled with moments of levity, it never forgets the inevitably that's building in Germany. Plus, because of radio's rising popularity at the time, it's explained that Kings are becoming akin to actors and speech is of paramount importance. Those two truths permeate the film and create a unique level of subtextual tension in addition to the surface conflicts.

Tom Hooper's direction also does several things that help distinguish The King's Speech. His shooting style is incredibly varied, from long tracking Steadicam shots, to extreme close ups, to oddly composed medium shots where both characters are in the lower left hand corner of the frame. At times, these compositions are a bit off-putting, but they're meant to be. They're meant to bring the audience in and give the film a more personal touch. Hooper wants the audience to feel like they're a fly on the wall of history, and flies rarely have the perfect view of the action. Also, the score by Alexandre Desplat is sublime. Melodic and lyrical, it's used just enough to pace the film while also dictate its tone.

That tone, however, is mostly set by the radically different, yet perfectly symbiotic, performances not only of the two leads, but the impressive supporting cast as well. As George VI, Firth is stoic, stubborn and obviously self-conscious. His stutter seems effortless, his embarrassment devastating and his rising and falling emotions natural. Juxtapose that with Rush's turn as Logue, which is hyper confident, humorous yet respectful, and the pair are perfect foils.

In addition, all the supporting roles, from Bonham Carter, to Guy Pearce as Edward VIII, Michael Gambon as George V, and Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, make the most of limited screen time and provide a strong cultural basis to the main story. Of course, none of the performances or chemistry would have been possible without a snappy and insightful screenplay by David Seidler.

Filled with humor, history and heart, The King's Speech is about being powerless over personal flaws and how dealing with a problem, however big or small, can define a person in history. It's a tour de force of filmmaking that doesn't feel like one because everything is so clean and simple, even when life isn't.

The King's Speech is scheduled for limited release November 26, right in prime Oscar season. And you can be sure it'll be represented there in February. The Kodak Theater, after all, is right next door to Grauman's Chinese.