"The King's Speech" was far from topping my best-of list this past year. Pulling historical fact for inspiration, it walked away with four of the biggest awards at the 2011 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay. While I definitely have my issues with its near sweep of the major categories, I will not deny it's power as film that is human and inspiring. David Seidler's script draws not only from history, but also from a personal place, as he crafts the tale of King George VI's (or Prince Albert prior to his ascension to the throne) (Colin Firth) relationship with Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian speech therapist. George VI, then second in line to the throne of his father King George V (Michael Gambon in a brief, but memorable supporting part). Browbeaten for his crippling speech impediment by his father and brother, heir to that very throne, Prince Edward (Guy Pearce), it's up to Albert's wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter, who gives a great performance herself) to seek out someone to help her husband overcome his lifelong problem, and when traditional methods fail, in steps Lionel Logue.
Seidler's script unfolds at a natural pace, establishing all the major players, Albert's character traits and the close nature with his loving wife. It's nearly a quarter of the way into the film that Lionel and Albert meet and the magic begins. Strictly on paper, Seidler's script is accomplished but tired sounding. It's the stuff of every corny, "inspiring TV movie," and Tom Hooper's equally accomplished but unremarkable direction would leave one wondering how such a film not only made it to theaters but walked away with all the critical praise. That is where Hooper's outstanding cast steps in with both Firth and Rush lighting up the screen. Firth gives the second best performance of his career, only overshadowed by his breakout role in the epic miniseries adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" nearly two decades ago. He makes Seidler's writing of Albert come to life, shattering viewers' preconceived notions of aristocracy and painting a portrait of a man filled with personal demons and shame, but forced by his place in life to hide them.
Rush's role is that of a tag-team partner, giving viewers the "common man" point of view to latch onto. The pair has a natural on-screen chemistry that is initially played for laughs as the story goes to the tried-and-true, "two worlds collide" motif. Albert's stuffiness is promptly rebuked by Logue's no-nonsense approach to therapy, including radical methods (for a man of royalty) such as calling Albert, Bertie and encouraging him to swear like a common man, providing one of the film's most talked about and memorable scenes. There's been a great deal of controversy over the film's R-rating which stems from Albert using the dreaded "F-word" multiple times in a short time frame. The Weinstein's, producers on the film, recently sought to sanitize the film for a PG-13 rating by dropping the audio (you can still clearly read the mouth of Firth) on the offending words and re-releasing the film in theaters. I'm happy to report the original uncut, R-rated version (an absurd rating, but an issue I don't have time to go into) is the version of the film featured on this DVD; for those wanting a "softer" version of the film, I truly pity you.
Tangent aside, that scene is one of many that brings out the heart and soul of "The King's Speech," the friendship between Albert and Lionel. Through all the generic story telling trappings and emotionally manipulative moments that Hooper employs to gain a reaction from audiences, the honesty and reality of Rush and Firth's performances overshadow any contrived sentiment and remind viewers that movies don't have to be dark, make a political statement (the film does make some statements on class, but they are thoughtful and never in-your face), or feel confusing for confusions sake. "The King's Speech" is classic storytelling done right and a testament to masterful acting breathing new life into familiar material.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer features strong character detail and equally impressive color reproduction. The image does have a soft look to it at times and the colors at first seem less saturated than desired, but it's an obvious design choice and not a technical flaw as contrast levels are natural and strong, while some mild digital noise/grain appears most noticeable on strong solitary, lighter colored images.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track reproduces every line of dialogue with clarity and depth. Surrounds are used to good effect when necessary, generally adding space to a room. The only black mark on the scorecard comes from the score, which sounds a tad under mixed. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included as well as Spanish subtitles.
"The King's Speech" arrives with a nice little assortment of generally informative special features, first and foremost being a feature-length commentary by Director Tom Hooper. Hooper's methodical in his comments but provides good insight into the filmmaking process. "An Inspirational Story of An Unlikely Friendship" is your standard 20-odd minute promotional style behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Rounding out the bonus features is a 20-minute Q&A with the principal cast and director Tom Hooper, two speeches of the real King George Vi that shows how well Firth nailed the King's cadence, and last but not least a brief (5-minutes) interview with Lionel Logue's grandson.
Whether you agree with it' taking home the Best Picture Oscar, you can't deny "The King's Speech" is an incredible story of friendship, elevated from mediocrity by the performances of Firth and Rush. It's not a film you'll be thinking about very long after the credits roll, but is as inspiring and, to mine a terrible cliché, heartwarming on repeat viewings. It arrives on DVD with a fine technical presentation, aided by a limited in quantity but rich in quality collection of extras. Highly Recommended.