National Post, Sept 9, 2010, by Chris Knight

The film's the thing for
Colin Firth to catch the essence of a King


One of the main reasons Colin Firth became an actor is so he'd never have to dress up in formal wear or lead the stiff life of an Englishman. Now, he's playing King George VI in The King's Speech.

Every year, the Toronto International Film Festival ushers in newly minted celebrity royalty—sometimes literally. Last year, Emily Blunt was feted for her performance in the closing-night film The Young Victoria. This year the monarch of the screen is Victoria’s great-grandson, George VI, as played by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech. The film gets a gala premiere at Roy Thomson Hall Friday night.

Firth, who turns 50 on Friday, seems to have been born to play the shy, repressed and stammer-prone future King. His quintessential role remains that of Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice; a part he reprised in two Bridget Jones movies. Last year he was Oscar-nominated for A Single Man, playing a closeted gay professor dealing with the death of his lover in 1962.

But Firth is quick to quash any stories of personal stiff-upper-lippedness. “I think the reserve that I project is more something of a stock and trade for films than it is in my own life,” he says (somewhat reservedly, it must be said).

As a youth, “I was far more interested in growing my hair, piercing my ears and learning to play the guitar … than I was in wearing a suit and a tie. And the great paradox of my life is that one of the reasons I became an actor is so I’d never have to do that, putting on ties and leading the life of a stiff Englishman. And look what happened.”

In fact, a youthful turn in a rock band helped inform his role in The King’s Speech, after his enthusiastic vocals left him with a weak larynx. “It damages your vocal cords if you’re not actually Robert Plant,” he says dryly.

Then a bout of laryngitis in his twenties rendered him unable to speak beyond a whisper for many months. “I would avoid bars and restaurants because I couldn’t project above the level of the room,” he says. “I started to strategize my way around my failure to communicate. I said things differently than the way I would choose to say them.

“And I remember thinking: ‘I don’t have my personality. If I can’t say it this way, who am I then?’ ”

In the film, George’s stammer is the subject of much royal hand-wringing, but it becomes a crisis when his elder brother (a foppish Guy Pearce) abdicates to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. As next in line to the throne, George is expected to lead his people through the new medium of radio, which abhors a vacuum.

Enter Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist hired to cure George—or “Bertie,” as he cheekily insists on calling him—of his impediment. Logue is played by Geoffrey Rush, who’s thrilled to bring an Australian character to the screen but jokes that the plot might be a hard sell. “Two middle-aged men become friends,” he intones. “Don’t splash that across the poster.”

In fact, the film is peppered with great comedic dialogue, some of it actually written by George VI. For instance, when the King pulls off a near-perfect radio address, Logue gently notes that he still stumbled a few times. “I had to throw in a few,” Bertie replies, “so they’d know it was me.”

Director Tom Hooper (The Damned United, TV’s John Adams miniseries) says that, about nine weeks before filming began on The King’s Speech, he learned that Logue’s grandson was living in London, just a 10-minute drive away. A visit gave him access to Logue’s private diaries, in which he wrote about treating the King. “We had this extraordinary treasure trove,” Hooper says.

The director is diplomatic about the possibility that Firth could score his second Oscar nomination, and that the film itself might grab a best-picture nod. “Whatever happens I just hope it will allow more people to see the film,” he says.

Firth is even more circumspect—at first. “What it does is create a question that’s almost impossible to answer,” he says. “It’s very sudden.”

Then he decides to open up a little. “I would love everything to get thrown at it. Of course I would. I’ve had a lot of years of working on stuff where the only thing people throw at it is rotten tomatoes. A few baubles would do very nicely, thank you.”

Spoken like a king.

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