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Loud and clear ; 'King's Speech' seems destined to keep winning awards

Some people never learn. Which is why the great pedagogical movies are for all of us, every last one.

The only reason anyone could possibly have for disliking "The King's Speech" is that it almost seems coldly and consciously designed to win every major award in sight: Best Picture awards, Best Actor awards for Colin Firth, Best Supporting Actor awards for Geoffrey Rush, Best Screenplay awards for David Seidler, who was himself a stutterer as a child.

And that's what this extraordinary film is about. Stuttering.

So, no, you're not talking about a teacher like "The Miracle Worker's" Annie Sullivan helping a sufferer overcome a handicap as radical as Helen Keller's. Nor are we talking about the savant brother in "Rain Man" so desperately in need of decoding in a cruel, miscomprehending world.

We're talking about a very common handicap in the world that we seldom think about but which must, often, be a very special hell on earth for those afflicted.

And now imagine what a serious stutter must have been like for Prince Albert, the Duke of York and the younger brother of the future King of England and himself a man often called upon to make major public appearances for the royal family. And then imagine the special torment of the stutterer if that man -- called "Bertie" by friends and family -- can't stop his older brother from abdicating the throne to marry his twice-divorced American lover Wallis Simpson and become the future Duke of Windsor.

To make matters incomparably worse, all of this is happening as the world is about to go to war, one of the few times when the things said by a modern British king actually matter to the morale of the nation. And too, the age of radio has already begun. No more, then, will any royal handicaps be a matter of limited concern.

That is the hell we see Bertie try to overcome in "The King's Speech" with the aid of a wildly unconventional speech therapist from Australia named Lionel Logue.

This, then, is the story of King George VI, father of the current Queen Elizabeth, and great-grandfather of the future King William, whose upcoming April marriage actually finds some Americans feigning interest.

Firth is Bertie, Rush is Logue and Helena Bonham Carter is the future queen (the woman we've always known in America as "the Queen Mother") who finds, in the first place, this unusual therapist to help a husband whose previous parade of conventional tutors did him no earthly good at all.

Those sadists would bury him in gargles and sprays and masochistic trials. On the other hand, this roughneck Australian found by the Queen Mum -- who, at first, tells him that her name is "Mrs. Johnson" -- insists, as his first official pedagogical act, on being treated as much like an equal as possible. The Duke must come to him in his shabby flat, rather than he go to Buckingham Palace. The tutor will call the royal "Bertie." The royal will call him "Logue." Or "Lionel."

And then the fun begins -- all sorts of peculiarities like rolling around on the floor, all manner of things to take the psychological burdens away from simply talking (does he know any jokes, asks the tutor. "Timing isn't my strong suit," answers the future king, with a bit of a halter that doesn't detract a whit from his answer's wit).

And that is the brutal irony of the story we're told: This man, so imprisoned by the things he can't say, is every inch a king in his outlook on the world and his sense of his own responsibilities. His older brother and natural monarchical heir, on the other hand, is a spoiled and frivolous man, barely competent by any royal standard, but nothing if not fluent in speech that is likely to dishonor himself. (He was, among other things, insufficiently anti-Nazi at the worst possible historical moment.)

So it's that irresistible thing, the pedagogical drama -- the unconventional teacher and the royal pupil, whose entire world depends quite a bit on the tutor's success.

And it all climaxes with Bertie's radio speech to the nation after he has been crowned King George VI. If you're not choked up, at least a little, your compassion may be a quart low.

What's fascinating to me, though, about the great climactic moment in the entire film is how much it depends equally on Firth's remarkable skill as an actor and the slow movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony which the film uses, at that moment, as its soundtrack.

They weren't going to miss a trick, it seems, with "The King's Speech." Having your own soundtrack composer is all well and good but when you really need grandeur and sentiment combined in your film, you can't do any better than good old Beethoven. He won't be winning any major awards this season but we know better who really deserves one, don't we?

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

***

THE KING'S SPEECH

4 stars (out of 4)

STARRING: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter

DIRECTOR: Tom Hooper

RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes

RATING: R for language.

THE LOWDOWN: An Australian tutor helps King George VI overcome a terrible stutter. Opens Saturday.

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