The King's Speech: Pushing All the Oscar Buttons

A historical drama with a physically challenged hero pushes all the right Oscar buttons

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The Weinstein Company

Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech

The oscar race is over. It's all but certain that at the end. of the big broadcast on Feb. 27, a presenter will open the final envelope and say, "And the Oscar for Best Picture goes to ... The King's Speech."

That, anyway, is the received wisdom from those who handicap the Academy Awards. The Social Network and Toy Story 3 are worthy contenders, plus who-knows-which late entries. Yet The King's Speech, which wowed 'em at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals and which opens Nov. 26, is the easy front runner. That's because the Oscar-winning movie is a genre with conventions no less rigid than those of the fantasy film. Follow these rules shrewdly, and you too could carry home the statuette.

Consider that of the 50 films nominated for Best Picture from 2000 to '09, nearly 60% were set in the historical past. Fifteen of the 50 had historical figures as their subjects. Six were set in Britain, and seven took place during World War II or the years just before it, with Hitler's shadow looming. It also helps to focus on a British monarch, as in The Queen, or on a character with a severe physical or emotional disability (Ray, A Beautiful Mind) that he learns to live with or conquer through the help of those close to him. Oh, and cast lots of Brits.

The King's Speech adheres to every rule in the Oscar playbook. It's a fact-based drama about a British monarch with a crippling vocal handicap, set in the years 1925 to '39 and climaxing with Britain declaring war against Nazi Germany. It's also a very effective example of the noble weepie.

Since his youth, the Duke of York (Colin Firth) has had a hopeless stammer. In desperation, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) hires Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech teacher with odd methods. He tells his patients to sing "The Swanee River" and use vigorous profanity, and he probes their childhoods for the source of the infirmity. He's Henry Higgins, Annie Sullivan and Sigmund Freud in one package. Now he just has to get the future King of England to properly speak the King's English.

David Seidler's script smartly illuminates the Duke's sweet, sad good nature, his loneliness and his determination. A retinue of Brit acting royalty (Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Claire Bloom) buttresses Firth's tender central performance. If the direction, by Tom Hooper, goes for obvious effects and reduces some of the characters to caricature, that may vitiate the film's quality, but it also assures that the real target audience--the Academy members--will get it. And it nearly assures that The King's Speech will get the top Oscar.

This article originally appeared in the November 29, 2010 issue of TIME.