The King’s Speech is the one of the few films I know of to humanize the embarrassment of stuttering. It tells the story of Prince Albert, Duke of York, who, following the death of his father and the resignation of his older brother, became King George VI and had the unenviable task of leading England and its many colonies into World War II; although he had a voice and had plenty to say, his debilitating stammer made it virtually impossible to actually say it. Imagine what that must be like. You’re a public figure, your country is on the brink of war, and the frightened masses long for your words to comfort and guide them – but you have not yet mastered the skill of getting those words out. Your mouth gets in the way of your brain, and what’s worse, at a time when it’s most inconvenient.
There’s a moment late in the film when Albert, known to his family as Bertie (Colin Firth), watches newsreel footage of Adolph Hitler addressing the Nazis: “What is he saying?” asks one of his daughters. “I don’t know,” he answers slowly and deliberately, “but he seems to be saying it rather well.” When the film begins, it’s 1925, and Bertie fails miserably at delivering a speech to close the British Empire Exhibition; from that, it’s easy to understand his frustration, dread, and shame, knowing he was teased as a child, knowing his nanny favored his brother, knowing his father’s inability to comprehend, knowing every single certified speech therapist in London failed to relieve him of his stutter. So then it’s understandable that he would eventually admire Hitler’s speaking voice. He was an evil man, but boy, when he spoke, his voice rang loud and clear.
Bertie’s story begins when he was still a Duke. In the mid 1930s, desperate to get her husband help, the future Queen Mother Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) happens upon Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist and failed actor from Australia who loves performing Shakespeare in front of his family – in all likelihood because of the flowing, eloquent language. He’s not like the other speech therapists. He makes the rules. He insists that he and his clients be treated equally, which is why he addresses the Duke as Bertie rather than Your Highness. He wants to be called Lionel, not Doctor. He demands that all sessions be held not in Bertie’s estate, but in his own office, which, in its dinginess, takes on an oddly organic quality that suits his profession. He’s witty and isn’t afraid to show it, not even in front of royalty. Elizabeth, while unaccustomed to eccentric commoners, is willing to comply for the sake of her husband.
And so begins Bertie’s speech therapy, an unconventional routine of diaphragm exercises, tongue and jaw techniques, and memorization of tongue twisters. But this is not merely a clinical series of activities; over time, a friendship grows between the two, one that enables Bertie to try a little harder, even in desperate situations. When he puts on headphones and listens to music, for example, he’s able to recite a Shakespeare soliloquy without stammering. How is this possible? It’s a matter of distraction; with his attention focused away from the fact that he’s speaking, he can go from start to finish almost completely unhindered.
But how can he speak with any degree of confidence knowing the crown would soon be on his head? He never wanted to be king; he was a naval officer and a prince. Following the death of his father, George V (Michael Gambon), the next in line for the throne was his brother, Edward (Guy Pearce), but he abdicated in order to be with the woman he loved – a twice divorced American socialite named Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). Elizabeth sensed this in Edward, which is why she sought out Lionel in the first place. If her husband was to be king, and if this meant addressing the people on a regular basis, it would be necessary for him to treat his stammer and conquer his fear of public speaking. Everything leads up to the fall of 1939, at which point Bertie, as George VI, must announce over the radio that England is at war with Germany.
Firth’s portrayal is extraordinary. Watching him, we don’t see a prince or a king; we see a man who wants to be heard. We may also marvel at his ability to stutter, which isn’t at all easy to mimic convincingly. Credit also to Carter, who lends a quiet but nonetheless wonderful air of caring and sympathy to her role. On the basis of this portrayal, it’s no wonder that the Queen Mother was one of the most beloved royal figures of the last century. And as for Rush, he finds the right balance between humor and heart in his depiction of Lionel. He may crack a few too many jokes, but he is a person with feelings, and it’s clear that he cares deeply for his wife and children. The King’s Speech is an absorbing, touching, inspirational film, and is definitely one of the year’s best. Its only flaw is its R rating, which the MPAA deemed necessary for exactly two scenes of swearing. I don’t pretend to understand what goes into making these decisions.