'The King's Speech' is a wonderful surprise

As I sat in the theater watching the seats fill, row after row, I was reminded that people still love to be told a good story. And there is no medium that does this more powerfully than film. A fine example is the recently released "The King's Speech." It is extraordinary. A wonderful surprise.

That it was ever made is remarkable. Imagine trying to pitch to a studio this very English film, set in the 1920s and 30s, about a shy man, Albert the Duke of York, albeit the future King of England, who possesses a stammer that has tormented him all of his life.

Albert, aka Bertie (Colin Firth), has always been content (resigned, perhaps) to live his life in the shadow of his older brother, Edward (Guy Pearce), who is first in line to the throne held by their father, the overbearing and unsympathetic George V (Michael Gambon). For decades, Bertie has hidden from his family and the public ever fearful that in the midst of a mundane conversation his throat will close off, his words incarcerated by an uncontrollable stammer. The thought of standing before a microphone at a public speaking engagement sends him into a paroxysm of panic and harrowing silence.

Wishing to overcome this affliction, he sees speech experts of questionable practices, one filling his mouth with ice cubes while insisting that they can cure him. Another encourages him to smoke, claiming that it relaxes the throat. He is deeply frustrated and constantly humiliated.

Finally, his wife, the Duchess of York (Helena Bonham Carter), desperate, finds Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an eccentric speech therapist who uses unorthodox methods and patiently explains to both the Duchess and the Duke that if they give him total control and their trust he can help Bertie do that which has eluded him all of his life: speech that is liberated and flows freely.

And so begins the essence of the film: the creation of an improbable relationship between two men, Logue, the Australian expatriate and commoner, and Albert, royalty, whose only wish is that he never have to assume the crown as the King of England.

Their relationship, tentative and combative at first, filled with resistance and distrust, takes on a special importance when Bertie's brother, Edward, is crowned King Edward VIII after the death of their father, George V. Edward, it turns out, scandalizing all of England, announces that he will abdicate the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), an American divorcee. That decision requires that Albert, next in succession, step forward and assume that singular role, the prospect of which has always terrified him. How can he ever speak to the people of England as their king when he can't speak to his family or to Logue without a debilitating stutter?

Adding to the exigencies of his position is the fact that England is on the cusp of war with Germany. Albert, who is soon to become King George VI, must reassure and inspire his countrymen during a period that will be characterized as their finest hour. And he must do this standing before a microphone as his voice goes out, near and far.

The relationship created between Logue and the Duke is touching, filled with humor and tension and scatological rants (Bertie never stammers when he's angry and cussing). To watch the two men spar, teacher and pupil, is to observe two deeply gifted actors deliver the performances of their lives, while supported by the members of an astonishing ensemble — a dream cast.

"The King's Speech" is a brilliantly recreated moment in history that otherwise would have likely been just a footnote to those years leading up to World War II. Happily it isn't.

The Dilemma

Narrowly defined, a dilemma is a predicament in which two possibilities present themselves, both equally undesirable. The just released film "The Dilemma" certainly meets that criterion.

Ronny (Vince Vaughn), in partnership with his best friend, Nick (Kevin James), while scouting an appropriate place to propose to his girlfriend, Beth (Jennifer Connelly), spots Nick's wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder), hungrily kissing another man. His problem is what to do with this information. What is his moral duty to Nick? And how will it impact their business?

They are close to signing a contract with Dodge for a green engine that has the power and the amplification of a 66 Ford GT-350 or the iconic Dodge Hemi: a muscle car with batteries. A guy car we're told by Ronny, not a lame, quiet, hybrid. Telling Nick about Geneva, at this delicate moment, could unhinge the deal by distracting Nick, the engineering genius behind the engine, and already stressed to the max by deadlines. Ergo: Ronny's dilemma.

The scene of observed infidelity takes place at the end of act one, an act that establishes that Ronny and Nick are involved in a long-term bromance. They're straight, the movie emphasizes, but they're also best buds: clubbing, hockey, cars.

As act two begins, it would seem natural that Ronny would go home to Beth — she's bright, a successful chef, caring, and eager to be included in whatever speed bumps Ronny might encounter. In fact, she was there for him as he overcame a gambling problem some years back. This is a woman who can be leaned on.

Instead of sharing his dilemma with her, however, Ronny begins a long period of deception, dissembling and even stalking. He faults Geneva for her lack of honesty, yet rejects honesty as perhaps the best modus operandi, at least with Beth. And thus the film pivots, from screwball comedy — with over-the-top scenes — to a melodrama, at times dark, and then back to screwball, giving the audience whiplash in the process. The film thus seems schizophrenic and ultimately unsatisfying.

Vaughn does his all too familiar boy-man-jock-making-really-dumb-choices schtick. Sometimes this persona works, as it did in "Wedding Crashers." But often it can seem silly, inane, requiring a suspension of disbelief by the audience. Would anyone really make such choices? Not likely.

This isn't to say that Vaughn can't do serious drama. He can, and has, a fine example being "A Coo1, Dry Place" (1999,) or, with some success, "The Breakup." And there are moments when "The Dilemma" goes serious and hints at what the story could have been. Given that Ron Howard ("Apollo 13," "A Beautiful Mind," "The DaVinci Code," "Frost/Nixon") rarely misses, it's a surprise that he does miss with "The Dilemma."

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