King Colin: Firth stammers eloquently as George VI

TORONTO (AP) — Academy Awards voters love a great performance as a British monarch. And they love a great performance embodying a disability.

Colin Firth, who earned his first Oscar nomination for last year’s “A Single Man,” this season delivers on both counts in “The King’s Speech,” playing King George VI as he reluctantly ascends to the throne amid a lifelong battle to overcome a debilitating stammer.

Often playing glib characters with a biting tongue, as he did in the “Bridget Jones” romances and the comedy “Easy Virtue,” Firth is the utter opposite of eloquent as George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth II, who was known by his given name Albert, or Bertie, to his family.

“I suppose I wasn’t looking to undermine my eloquence, such as it may be, or to interfere with my own ability to complete a sentence,” Firth, 50, said in an interview at September’s Toronto International Film Festival, where “The King’s Speech” played ahead of its theatrical release Friday.

“What fascinated me is what is in that stammer that tells us about what he’s going through,” Firth said. “Those silences that Bertie finds himself in when he hits one of those blocks are a positive abyss, and they may only last a second or two, but they probably feel like an eternity.”

Though early critics prizes and the season’s first big film nominations are weeks away, “The King’s Speech” has buzz as a potential front-runner across the board at the Oscars.

Along with Firth, who could emerge as the best-actor favorite, the film has strong acting prospects for Helena Bonham Carter as Bertie’s wife, Queen Elizabeth, and Geoffrey Rush as his wily speech therapist.

Firth, whose parents were university professors, studied drama and got his start on the British stage, including productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He gradually worked his way into television and film in the 1980s and had a breakout performance as the aloof romantic hero, Mr. Darcy, in a 1995 TV adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

Firth’s other credits include “The English Patient,” “Love Actually,” “Nanny McPhee” and “Mamma Mia!”

A classy production with meticulous period detail, “The King’s Speech” is anything but a stuffy costume drama. The film is enormously entertaining, with great heart and wit reminiscent of other Oscar winners featuring British royalty such as “The Queen” and “Shakespeare in Love,” in which Firth co-starred as Gwyneth Paltrow’s vile husband.

Audiences have adored “The King’s Speech” on the festival circuit, where its awards include the prize for being the fans’ favorite film at Toronto.

“We didn’t realize it was a comedy as well as a drama,” Firth said. “We had no idea people enjoyed it on so many levels.”

Though few people today know much about Albert’s speech problem, the story of his rise to the throne is well-known. He became king in 1936 after his brother, Edward, abdicated so he could marry Wallis Simpson, a twice-divorced American.

It was possibly the worst time for a stammering king. The new medium of radio had taken hold, and Albert’s father, King George V, had become adept at live broadcasts to his subjects.

For Albert, each time he went before a microphone was torture, yet he came to power as World War II approached, an era when British citizens needed reassuring words from their head of state more than at any period in their history.

“As George V says, all a king ever had to do before was look good and not fall off his horse,” Firth said. “And if he had come along 10 years later, then he could have been edited, recorded. He could have been bailed out of it.”

Tall and broad-shouldered, Firth bears little resemblance to the more slightly built king. Yet “King’s Speech” director Tom Hooper saw a personal or spiritual connection between the king and Firth that was vital to the film.

“From my research, King George VI clearly is nice to his core, and he’s a very gentle man and has a deep humility,” Hooper said. “Colin is nice to his core, very humble, also a very gentle man. That great moral compass, great goodness, great decency, I felt that connection to him was the most important thing.

“I also think if you’re struggling at getting every sentence of the movie out, you have to love him, you have to care for him. Colin has this genius of being very lovable. He brings you into his emotional space.”

It’s heartbreaking to watch Firth’s Albert agonize over his words, particularly in public speeches, when crowds are hanging on each faltering syllable.

Co-star Rush, who as therapist Lionel Logue shares extended scenes struggling to smooth out Albert’s speech, said Firth embodied the monarch’s frustration and anger as much as the impediment itself.

“It’s the oldest drama-school adage. You never played drunkenness in a scene even though your character may be completely sozzled. Because most drunken people are trying to look sober,” Rush said. “Never once did I see a kind of technique, a technical approach to the work of a man acting stuttering. I constantly saw, here’s a guy who really wants to say something but can’t get it out.”

Albert’s reserved nature, let alone his stammer, made him ill-suited to be king, yet he became a beloved figure to the British people for his perseverance.

In preparing for the role, Firth found an item his grandfather had written in a small Indian newspaper after George VI died in 1952, discussing the king’s quiet courage and humanity.

“The fear of public speaking is so enormous, anyway,” Firth said. “It’s considered one of the primary phobias that humans have, and someone was saying the other day, if you have to do the oratory at a funeral, some people are so frightened, they’d rather be the guy in the coffin. And that’s without stammering.”

Amid the London Blitz and the carnage of World War II, “I think he’d have rather been out there facing the guns than facing the microphone,” Firth said. “People just sensed that it cost him a huge amount to speak to them, so therefore, he was sharing their struggle.”

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