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Movies: The King's Speech ****

Once upon a time it was fashionable to have a certain sympathy for Edward VII, the romantic royal who forsook the British throne to marry his spiky sweetheart, Wallace Simpson.

But history has a way of settling its accounts and Edward's stock has fallen steeply of late. In the recent Channel 4 drama Any Human Heart, he was portrayed as a spiteful, petty, pompous ass, and this film doesn't treat him all that much better. Directed by Tom Hooper from a screenplay by David Seidler, The King's Speech offers a fresh take on the 1936 abdication crisis by viewing it from Bertie Windsor's perspective.

Albert Frederick Arthur George Windsor (Colin Firth) was Edward VII's younger brother, and father of the present queen. A shy and awkward young man, he grew up in the shadow of his more dashing brother (Guy Pearce), and might have managed to keep clear of the limelight had fate not dealt him a different hand. In The King's Speech, we first meet Bertie, Duke of York in October of 1925, when a rare public engagement ends in disaster.

Asked to give the closing address at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, Bertie's chronic speech impediment turns the occasion into a protracted ordeal for both him and his audience.

Bertie has had a bad stammer since childhood, a condition not helped by his brother's teasing and the gruff impatience of his father, King George V (Michael Gambon). But in his redoubtable wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), Bertie has a staunch ally.

After persuading him to submit to various quack treatments, the Duchess of York hears tell of a gifted speech therapist operating out of Harley Street. At the offices of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), Her Royal Highness finds a cheerful but worryingly informal Australian. Although initially sceptical, Logue agrees to meet the Duke of York with a view to treating him.

Their first encounter, however, does not go well. The duke is both spikily defensive and dismissive of Logue's methods. Eventually he storms out, but takes with him a recording Logue has make of Bertie reading an excerpt from Hamlet. While recording it, Logue played loud classical music so that Bertie couldn't hear his own voice, and when the duke listens back to it he's amazed to hear himself declaim fluently without a trace of a stammer.

That's just the beginning of a process that will test the patience and courage of both men. And the treatment acquires new urgency when Bertie's brother assumes the throne and then starts vacillating because the political establishment won't hear of his marrying the twice-divorced Mrs Simpson. This could mean that Bertie may become king, and the prospect of public functions and radio addresses to the empire absolutely terrifies him.

The King's Speech is one of those heritage dramas the British do so well, and is so solid and respectable a piece of work that it should be listed as a protected landmark by the National Trust. Unlike, say, Stephen Frears' The Queen, the film is entirely uncontroversial in its approach to the British royals, who are portrayed (with the exception of the duty-shirking Edward VII) as a sometimes arrogant but essentially decent and even loveable bunch. Their snobbery and sense of entitlement are viewed with indulgence, and when Lionel Logue is condescended to as a provincial commoner, he takes it on the chin like a good subject should.

It's a nicely made, enjoyable and relentlessly sugary period drama, but what raises it above mere competence is a witty script and some very fine performances. Geoffrey Rush is an actor of remarkable range, and his portrayal of the affable but impetuous Logue is nuanced and convincing. Ms Bonham Carter brings some lovely touches to her duchess, taking her beyond the confines of the script with knowing looks and well-timed mannerisms.

With only a handful of scenes, Guy Pearce does a fine job of drawing a character who accepts privilege as a God-given right but doesn't really understand why anything should be expected of him in return. As for Colin Firth, he powerfully conveys both Bertie's essential decency and his towering frustration, not so much at the world as himself. He's a favourite for an Oscar nomination -- at least.

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