After months of hype proclaiming The King's Speech as a likely Oscar winner, more than a few viewers are going to feel a sense of disappointment now that the film is finally opening in Dallas-Fort Worth: This drama about King George VI (Colin Firth) and his struggles with stuttering turns out to be a polite, occasionally rousing, and more often than not, boring affair -- much like the 8,000 other costume dramas churned out by the Brits.
The story begins in the early 1930s, when then-Prince Albert is struggling with a speech that his father, King George V (Michael Gambon) has asked him to deliver at Wembley Stadium. While it was once enough for a member of the royal family to do little more than silently wave, the radio-loving public now expects a performance.
This is basically the story of Singin' in the Rain or, more recently, Morning Glory -- a tradition-bound "star" is sent uncomfortably hurtling into a brave new era. Writer-director Tom Hooper mostly plays it for gentle comedy: Albert's wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), persuades him to meet with a much-lauded speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). The men bicker and challenge one another, come together and tear apart, and eventually -- after Albert's father dies and his older brother (Guy Pearce) abdicates the throne -- are asked to deliver the ultimate speech: a wartime rallying cry to the whole of England.
Yet for all its considerable charms (Rush, doing a variation on his theater owner from Shakespeare in Love, is splendid), The King's Speech lacks any sense of urgency or purpose; it's toothlessly, terminally "nice." Lionel and the King are just another unlikely teacher-student combo, like better-dressed versions of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker.
You take your pleasures where you always find them in movies like this: the detailed costumes; the warm-hued photography; the extraordinary character actors (Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, Jennifer Ehle as Lionel's wife). But while maybe there is something to be said for a movie that celebrates tradition -- especially for those of us in America, where we turn on our leaders every two years -- did we really need another rah-rah portrait of the British aristocracy? God save the King, and heaven help the rest of us.