If for no other reason, the film satisfies simply for its almost heavenly contrast to the dumbed-down, conventional pap that Hollywood spews out. No special effects here, no peripatetic action, no zip zing pace, no needless vulgarities, no need for gross suspension of belief. Just a beautifully crafted slice of historical life, created like the best of BBC's Masterpiece Theatre on a welcoming adult level - a solid example of cinema at its finest.
You know the plot by now. Set mainly in the 30s, with Hitler and war on the horizon, a king dies, leaving the throne to a prince scandalously in love with a twice divorced American woman - forced to choose crown or love. He abnegates the crown, turning it over to the only other brother - who faces the consequences with terror: cursed with a chronic stammer, he dreads facing his subjects under any circumstance. And thus begins a startling but believable relationship with a stern yet sympathetic speech therapist in an odd couple situation.
It is also a kind of "upstairs-downstairs" character study - therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) and his family in a once fashionable apartment, amid soft light and warm ambiance, living in a contented existence devoid of high aspirations or delusions of rising above a middle-class existence; and King George VI, (Colin Firth) with his family in cool, opulent surroundings, content at least among themselves, but with the impending threat of royal responsibilities hovering dreadfully like the sword of Damocles.
The characters are vividly portrayed: Firth, shot mostly in soft light that highlights his immobile features, masking his terror of speaking in public with an imperiously royal demeanor; Rush, on the other hand, in harsh light, his craggy features revealing only the slightest show of sympathy that exists - stalwart, assured, unable to conceal his confidence, not backed by a degree, but from a lifetime of aiding people purely through intelligent perception and years of practice.
Helena Bonham Carter, accustomed to playing alluring, daring roles, is at her best here as Queen Elizabeth, the caring wife standing steadfastly behind the man she obviously adores. Derek Jacobi as an obviously confused archbishop - and so many other lesser characters identified from historical fact - all equally competent in their roles, thanks in great part to the keen eye and ear of Tom Hooper, who directs with impeccable accuracy for detail and class.
But above all, without which this would have been just another historical study, is David Seidler's script; it carefully outlines a gradually burgeoning on-again, off-again relationship that grows to a mutual buddy-like affection. (I understand that Seidler had earlier suffered a serious speech impediment; that might explain the sensitivity and agony with which the king's case is exposed.) The script is tight, squeezing out much of the larger scene - reactions to the king's impediment beyond the immediate cast, for example - closing in on the byplay between king and therapist, enhanced by its focus.
Taken at face value, this is nothing more than a docudrama about a very small incident in history, made remarkable by the writer's inspiration and its effect on the entire cast & crew. Danny Cohen's use of camera alone is remarkable - shot as if this were to be a grand TV movie, with similar use of compositions (esp. the placement of faces, set off to one side of the screen as has become a PBS custom - here, with an added effect: When we face the king head on as he presents his final speech - the straight frontal view is phenomenal.)
Editing by Tariq Anwar, with his straight forward cuttings balanced with beautiful lap dissolves and cross cuts between the two families - wonderful! And all the rest: Eve Stewart's production design, Netty Chapman's art direction, Judy Farr's set decoration, and Jenny Beava's costumes - impeccably researched and presented. It's a grand cinematic event, an ensemble effect that happens so rarely.
By the time we reach the final speech, we're so caught up in the lives presented to us that the sense of presence is keen. The speech and its aftermath are rhythmically beautiful, and the screen applause actually becomes transferred to us; the urge to applaud along with them is intense.
At that point, the film lapses for a moment into a touch of emotional manipulation, but - hey - by that time we needed it. (Grade: A)