Bad enough, you might think, to be born into the notoriously emotionally constipated Brit royal family.
But then on top of that to have a brutal martinet of a father, an iceberg of a mother and to grow up in the shadow of a far more charismatic and self-assured older brother – small wonder if Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth), the second son of King George V, is afflicted by a nervous stammer that, on public occasions, makes him sound like a sea lion with laryngitis.
Luckily, help is at hand – in the unlikely shape of an eccentric Aussie speech therapist called Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose approach includes rolling his royal patient around on the floor and who insists on addressing him as ‘Bertie’.
All this, amazingly enough, is a true story – told here with grace, good humour and heart. Following the hit-and-miss The Damned United, director Tom Hooper ups his game with another unlikely bromance.
Logue’s sessions with Bertie constitute the heart of the film, and David Seidler’s crisp script plays up the comedy. (“D’you know any jokes?” inquires Logue, trying to get his patient to loosen up. “T-timing isn’t my strong suit,” retorts Bertie.)
The dialogue’s lightness of touch pervades the whole film, turning what could easily have been a stuffy slog of a period piece into well-oiled entertainment. Neither does it feel like a TV movie, thanks in no small part to high-class production values, from Danny Cohen’s lush cinematography to the suitably precise sound design.
Yes, this is middlebrow, crowd-pleasing awards bait; but so well-executed, it’s all you can do to resist. It’s the crack cast that make it, though.
As Bertie’s wife Elizabeth (the latter-day Queen Mother), Helena Bonham Carter is gently steadfast. Derek Jacobi is all purse-lipped disapproval as Archbishop Cosmo Lang, and Guy Pearce reveals the moral flabbiness behind the debonair façade of Edward VIII, whose abdication forces a horrified Albert to become King George VI.
Rush, meanwhile, is excellent, bringing Logue to life with sly, gleeful relish. But ultimately this is Colin Firth’s film. Juggling stoical anguish, moving dignity and fits of comic swearing (which originally earned the film a now-withdrawn 15 certificate), Firth rivals his tour de force in A Single Man.
If The King’s Speech doesn’t bring him the Oscar he just missed for that role, it’ll be a royal scandal.