First published on Culturewatch © Tony Watkins 2011.
The King's Speech is bookended by two speeches. The first is a disaster, a deeply humiliating experience for Prince Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth), because of a severe stammer which had afflicted him since early childhood. He gives this speech on behalf of his father, King George V (Michael Gambon), at the closing ceremony of the British Empire Exhibition of 1925. It had been the world's largest exhibition, with only two of the 58 Empire nations not participating, and had run for more than a year. Bertie, as he's known within his family, is virtually paralysed by fear of being unable to speak the words. The struggle to even utter the first syllable seems interminable for both speaker and listeners, and just as he seems to have found the composure to begin, a horse whinnies and he has to psych himself up all over again. And yet, despite the anguish of the experience, he struggles through. To make matters worse, this is the first occasion on which one of Prince Albert's speeches is being broadcast by the BBC.
Colin Firth's performance is brilliant and thoroughly deserving of the Best Actor in a Drama award at the Golden Globes. He brings to the role great warmth and sensitivity, as well as an extraordinary sense of pent-up frustration. He movingly conveys the fear of a man confronting his inner demons every time he opens his mouth and, even more movingly, the courage and determination of someone who places his duty ahead of personal comfort.
It is this bravery and resolution which takes him eventually to the closing speech of the film. By this point he has become something he never expected or wanted to become: King George VI. Within three years, Britain declares war against Nazi Germany and he must address the nation on the radio. To do so is a major ordeal, and every listener knows it. The fact that he himself is suffering as he speaks gives his words about enduring suffering both poignancy and power. Everyone knows that when he talks about fighting against bondage and fear, he has some personal experience because he is doing so as he broadcasts.
Firth is helped enormously by two other superb performances. Helena Bonham Carter stars as Bertie's wife, Elizabeth, and Geoffrey Rush plays Lionel Logue, the unconventional Australian speech therapist who enables Bertie to find his voice.
One of the many reasons why The King's Speech works brilliantly is that it's so authentic about the issue right at its heart. David Seidler, who wrote the film, based on his own play, suffered from a severe stammer himself as a young boy in wartime Britain. King George VI was his hero because he had learnt to cope with his speech impediment in order to fulfil his very public role. The king's speeches on the radio encouraged Seidler to believe that he, too, could learn to manage his problem. He wanted to write a film about the king years ago, and met with Lionel Logue's son, Valentine, who advised Seidler to write to the Queen Mother (King George VI's widow) first. She requested him not to do so during her lifetime as 'the memories of these events are still too painful.' When, in 2005, Seidler finally commenced work on a stage play of the story, he discovered that he was able to reflect much more insightfully on his own experience. He says:
You know, I couldn't have written this story when I was 33. Life provides all sorts of terrible obstacles and only later do you realize that they are really all for the good. I was crushed when the Queen Mother told me not to write this in her lifetime. But I wasn't ready. To tell the story correctly, I had to plunge myself back into the experience of being a stutterer. That meant going back to the pain and isolation I knew as a child. And I know inside that I just couldn't have done that as a younger man. I wasn't ready until now.
Director Tom Hooper and Colin Firth studied archive recordings of the king in order to capture his particular problem as well as they possibly could. 'We had to find a way to make this sound authentic, and have it be painful,' Firth insists. '[If] it was inauthentic it would be a catastrophe.' It was vital that the audience should feel something of the pain and fear which his character lived with, yet not be alienated by feeling too much of it. Firth says that his two previous experiences playing characters with a stammer gave him no help at all because here he was playing someone else with different issues and therefore different difficulties. David Seidler was immensely helpful to Firth, who says:
If I remember, [Seidler] compared it to being underwater. That there was this panicking, drowning sensation, which seemed to have no way out. Terrible, endless silence that you can't climb out of. He also talked about how it conditions the way you approach your day, down to the last detail. If you have an important encounter that day, the outcome of which might change your life, you're still only focusing on whether you'll be able to get the words out. That will loom larger . . . than the bigger picture of what you're trying to achieve. . . .
And it made me realise that this was not something that you could isolate. It is something which absolutely consumes you and your identity. And I think that the struggle we witness in the film isn't about curing a stammer. It's about managing it to the extent that that is no longer what's happening. And that is absolutely achievable.
Sufferers have been fulsome in their praise for the authenticity of Firth's performance. Norbert Lieckfeldt, Chief Executive of the British Stammering Association, says, 'I have been deeply moved by the authenticity of the stammering experience. These silent blocks - they were me. I came away feeling incredibly tense and worn out by a kind of sympathetic "phantom stammering", going through every block that was on screen.'
After the mortifying experience at the British Empire Exhibition, Bertie sought help from respected physicians, but conventional techniques for treating stammerers at the time were ill-founded and ineffective. Bertie's humiliation is compounded by having one of them stuff his mouth with marbles because it had worked for Demosthenes. 'That was in ancient Greece,' observes Elizabeth. 'Has it worked since?' Bertie wants no more of this nonsense, concluding that he cannot be helped. But in 1934 Elizabeth comes across Logue and visits his treatment rooms in Harley Street under a pseudonym, leading to Logue's amusing discomfiture when he discovers who his visitor really is. Despite the importance of Logue's potential new client, he insists that he will only treat the prince on his own premises. He admits to being unorthodox and controversial, but guarantees that his method will work if he is given total trust and confidence.
When the prince arrives for his first session, Logue asks to be called by his first name and states that he will call his client Bertie, despite the royal protestations. This cheerful lack of deference is one of the aspects which makes Geoffrey Rush's character so appealing and engaging: he treats Bertie as a human being. 'In here it's better if we're equals.' 'If we were equals,' responds the prince, 'I wouldn't be here. I'd be at home with my wife and no-one would give a damn.' This encounter is something which is totally outside of Bertie's experience; anyone outside his own family treated him with the utmost respect and honour. Lionel asks him not to smoke, and when Bertie responds that his physicians told him that it helped to relax the lungs, Lionel dismisses them as 'idiots'. 'They've all been knighted,' Bertie observes. 'That makes it official then,' Lionel wryly retorts. The speech therapist insists that it's 'my castle, my rules', but Bertie and Elizabeth are adamant that there is to be no discussion of the prince's personal life; Logue is to deal only with the mechanics of speech.
What follows is a very amusing sequence in which Logue takes Bertie through a series of exercises which he claims will help the royal voice, but which actually seem designed to break down Bertie's reserve. Eventually, something of a friendship begins to develop, particularly in 1936 when King George V dies and Bertie's brother David becomes King Edward VIII. Bertie is in some despair about the situation, feeling that his father had been right to say that David would ruin himself, the family and the country. As Bertie sits gluing parts onto an aeroplane model belonging to one of Lionel's sons, he finally starts to open up to the therapist about the struggles of his childhood and the cruel treatment he had received at the hands of his nanny and his father. 'You know, you're the first ordinary Englishman I've ever talked to,' reflects Bertie. 'What are friends for?' asks Lionel. Bertie replies, 'I wouldn't know.' Firth precisely captures the vulnerability of someone who has always been defined in terms of a particular role, rather than being accepted and treated as a person first and foremost.
As Ian Nathan rightly observes in Empire, 'What Hooper sensed of Seidler's play is that this is not about fixing a voice, but fixing a mind bullied by his father . . . and brother since boyhood, a soul imprisoned by the burden of forthcoming kingliness.' He continues, 'Hooper plays on the idea of childhood. We meet Logue's scruffy brood and the twee Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret; while in another scene loaded with codified meaning, George begins to open up as he gently completes a model plane. The tragedy is that he never had a childhood. Friendship is a voyage into the unknown for Bertie. Logue is gluing him together.'
Tom Hooper reinforces this through the way that he has filmed The King's Speech, with many close-up shots, particularly of Bertie and Lionel, and often with Bertie set against a large amount of blank space emphasising his isolation and lostness. It subtly communicates that what is really important in this story is not the grand corridors of state, but what is going on in the minds of ordinary people. The connection between Bertie and Logue transformed the prince and played a very significant role in enabling him to become the much-loved king that people still recall. It was a friendship that continued throughout Bertie's life. The King's Speech makes it clear that Bertie had great strength of character, and Lionel declares that he is 'the bravest man I've ever known', but it's equally clear that the relationships with his wife and with Lionel were vital to him.
Many people, film critics included, expected The King's Speech to be a somewhat ordinary period royal drama - albeit with a first-rate cast - set in vast and magnificent rooms and all being somewhat removed from our everyday experience. But the unexpected triumph of this is that it is a profoundly human story. None of us face the peculiar pressures of being a member of the royal family, let alone unexpectedly becoming the monarch just before a world war, yet we can identify so easily with what is going on his life. We all face pressures of some sort or other, and even if we don't have a debilitating speech impediment, we are all acutely aware of our own particular weaknesses and fear. So the story of a genuine friendship that transcends boundaries, and of a man's deep resolve to come to terms with his problems and carry out his responsibilities unswervingly is inevitably heart-warming and inspiring. To see Lionel effectively conducting Bertie through that final speech in the film (as we know happened from Lionel Logue's own diaries) is intensely moving as it is the culmination of so much struggle, yet at the same time heralds the beginning of a truly terrible struggle for freedom and peace.
Bertie is in stark contrast with three other figures in The King's Speech. The obvious one is Lionel Logue, but the second is his older brother King Edward VIII, who is only concerned with his own personal happiness. 'Haven't I any rights?' he asks Bertie, concerning his intention to marry Wallis Simpson. 'Many privileges,' responds Bertie, to which David grumbles, 'Not the same thing.' That's the most insightful thing David says in the film; they're not the same thing at all, and Bertie understands that the privileges of their position entail immense responsibilities.
Bertie is also strongly contrasted with Adolf Hitler. When Bertie, Elizabeth and their children see a newsreel of the Nuremberg rally, one of princesses asks her father what Hitler is saying. He responds that he doesn't know, 'but he's saying it awfully well.' Bertie's hesitant, quiet, humble delivery is poles apart from Hitler's impassioned eloquence. It reflects something of the Apostle Paul's statement that 'God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful' (1 Corinthians 1:27).
We live in a world where many people are much more like David than Bertie, preoccupied with rights and desires, rather than with responsibilities to others. And we live in a world that still pays more attention to charismatic leadership than the moral values which undergird their ideas. In such a world, Bertie's story is one that warrants repeated viewings and thoughtful reflection.
 Patrick Goldstein, 'Oscar's real Cinderella storyteller: David Seidler, screenwriter of The King's Speech', Los Angeles Times, 10 January 2011.
 Katey Rich, 'Interview: Colin Firth Finds His Royal Voice In The King's Speech',Cinemablend, 29 November 2010.
 Michael Leader, 'Colin Firth and Tom Hooper interview: The King's Speech, Rocky IV and more', Den of Geek, 7 January 2011.
 'The King's Speech: chatting with Colin Firth', British Stammering Association, October 2010.