Author's note: when I first wrote this review, the film seemed so agreeably slight that it struck me as quite deranged that anybody had ever thought it could possibly win an Oscar for anything other than Colin Firth. Oops. Will revisit it one of these days, but for now, let's enjoy the spectacle of a blogger trying way too hard to be clever and failing spectacularly.

It's a damned shame that, on paper, The King's Speech looked like a surefire awards heavyweight, for it thus makes certain promises which the film itself is entirely unwilling to keep, and that is how a perfectly endearing little dollop of period costuming and British stuffiness can be greeted as something of a letdown. Facts being facts, The King's Speech is certainly not going to deserve all, or even most of the Oscar nominations that are probably coming its way; but in another world, where Harvey Weinstein does not exist and year-end accolades are a side note to cinephilia rather than a consuming interest for large swathes of the filmgoing population, I like to imagine that this same movie would be regarded as exactly the thing it is: one of 2010's richest, sweetest movie truffles, a playful comic drama that treats serious matters of state as a sitcom-level inconvenience for three perfectly delightful characters played by three talented actors at peak blitheness. The King's Speech is altogether less substantial than it seems like it ought to be, but not any more substantial than it thinks it is, and though this is not necessarily a merit in a film with a cameo by Adolf Hitler, it's hard to argue with a good light-hearted lark every now and then.

Somewhat based on history, with the embellishments that typically go into such affairs, the movie is essentially the story of a man with absolutely no faith in himself discovering that he is loved. The man in question is Albert Frederick Arthur George, Duke of York (Colin Firth), the second son of George V, King of England (Michael Gambon) and brother of Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, Prince of Wales (Guy Pearce). "Bertie", as his family calls him, has a stammer; and he also has a duty to speak in public at any number of affairs both significant and blandly ceremonial. Thus his wife, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (Helena Bonham-Carter) finds him the latest in a long line of speech therapists, an Australian named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), whose insistence on treating Bertie as an equal - that is, as a friend. Lionel's treatment of the royal slowly but steadily fills him with a sense of personal strength that gets him through the death of George V and the horrid year during which the un-crowned Edward VIII abdicates so that he can marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), leaving Bertie - now King George VI - to serve as the symbolic leader of all Britons during the dreadful days of the Second World War.

So pleasant is the film's depiction of a reluctant leader, forced by the tide of history to stop being frightened by the specter of his domineering father, that it seems almost churlish to point out that by 1927, Logue's treatment of the future king was largely completed, and for the remaining 25 years of his life, George VI only needed the Australian to help him stay relaxed through his many speeches (sort of a maintenance check-up, basically), while the film suggests that as late as 1939 it was a matter of nailbiting tension whether the king could possibly make it all the way through a single radio broadcast. You change the facts to make the drama work; and The King's Speech works rather damn well as drama, albeit a hugely conventional one.

It's equal parts buddy comedy and prestigey costume drama: though the most enjoyable parts are certainly those in the buddy comedy half of things, with Rush (turning his sometimes-intolerable fussy quirks to the service of his character, rather than just hamming things up incorrigibly) playing the mad imp to Firth's sad-sack royal person, in urgent need of loosening up. It's in moments like the notorious cursing scene that earned the film one of the least-justified R-ratings in the history of the MPAA, or the giddy moment when the King and Queen Consort are surprised by the arrival of Logue's oblivious wife (Jennifer Ehle), that The King's Speech soars: little snippets of gentle comedy in which a dry Britishness overrides all, and most of the pleasure lies in watching the two actors bounce off of each other. Even the more self-important parts are treated with a gliding light hand, to the point where a little more solemnity would almost seem welcome. It's only in the few spots where the film drifts into straight-up seriousness that it really clunks: there's a late jump into conflict between the two men, in the exact place it would come if this were a romantic comedy and not a royal biopic, which (for that exact reason) is entirely unconvincing to any degree. This is not, at heart, a story about inter-personal struggles but internal ones, and by keeping us separated from the king by Logue's constant wry presence, writer David Seidler and director Tom Hooper do not allow for even that internal conflict to seem very real: it's always a question of when everything will end happily, not if.

It's not quite as trifling as I suppose I'm making it sound, largely because of the efforts of two men. Firth's performance keeps the movie firmly grounded: in the face of Rush and Bonham Carter, both of them giving quite good performances that are awfully bubbly (Bonham Carter's version of an indomitable royal is really no less cartoonishly broad than Rush's quirky inspirational therapist), he dares to play Bertie as a genuinely fearful, tormented man. Nailing the physical requirements of the part (within a couple of scenes, his stammer feels entirely natural), Firth goes somewhat deeper into his character's anxiety than the script calls for, leaving The King's Speech always firmly anchored in pathos, and if it's not one of the actor's fullest, most nuanced performances, it's not going to be a total embarrassment that this will be his commemorated Oscar role.

Hooper is the other person keeping the film from floating off altogether: though always exercising the lightest of touches, he finds subtle visual cues - and less-subtle visual cues, it must be admitted - to keep reminding the audience of the inherent seriousness of everything. With a career largely based in television (he directed the stellar John Adams miniseries for HBO), Hooper is naturally inclined towards close-ups; but no TV cinematography could match the disconcerting effect of the particular close-ups in The King's Speech, most of them shot with a wide-angle lens that oh-so-slightly distorts the actors' faces and makes them seem somewhat larger and closer than typical. It's like being thrust into the story, and it gives the film a bit of gravity (since any shot as peculiar as a wide-angle close-up is too unnerving to be much "fun"). Beyond this technique, employed a great many times, Hooper simply has a perfect eye for historical detail: his and DP Danny Cohen's camera glosses over a wealth of objects and spaces, quickly but thoroughly filling in the world of Britain's halls of power in the pre-war years. Using more empty space than is customary, the filmmakers emphasise the sets over the actors at times; that is, the historical continuity represented by all of places being represented over the impermanent individuals at this particular moment in time. It's a theme present in the script but not very fully developed; fleshing it out visually, Hooper is thus able to add another layer of seriousness to the delicate material - though the film has very little historical weight, it would have much less without the director's approach to the narrative.

All this history and fluffiness and caricatured upper-class determination and the like leaves The King's Speech not entirely certain of what kind of movie it wants to be, and that's probably it's greatest flaw: a bit too somber to be a complete jaunt, and infinitely too charming and dear to have anywhere near the gravitas of a prestigious WWII film. Still, it's more fun than any royalty porn has been in years and years, feeling at times like a throwback to the '40s, and in the flurry of a limping Oscar season, the sugary crunch of a fun seriocomic character study is nothing to sneeze at. At any rate, it left me in a better mood than just about anything else has this month.