I recently saw The King’s Speech with a friend. It is the story of how Prince Albert must confront his debilitating stuttering with the aid of a self-taught Australian speech therapist to become George VI, King of the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth and Emperor of India, with the unforeseen end that he must prepare for the “War Speech” that will prepare his people for World War II. Does it sound like more than an obscure period piece? Well, it’s much more than that; this isn’t just a great film but a marvelous experience. I saw a lot of great movies this year, but this was one of the best. The personal inhibitions of a member of the Royal Family wouldn’t seem to make ready subject matter for a portrayal of the inward impediments that can block both talent and passion, but in many small moments this film is able to provoke on a personal level. It can do this not because the King is just like us–he is not–but because the earnestness of his intentions is beautiful to see, and his frustration as deep as anyone’s. To feel oneself well-suited for a certain type of work but somehow psychologically defeated is a powerful but often-unutterable human experience, or so the Liberal Ironist imagines.
Geoffrey Rush is in typically fine form as Lionel Logue, the King’s vocal trainer. Helena Bonham Carter is uniquely charming as Queen Mother Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. But Colin Firth steals the show as Prince Albert, Duke of York, the eventual King George VI. Firth evokes a truly sympathetic bundle of nerves, a frustrated man with both the animus and the fiber to be king but whose own mind somehow rebels when he merely tries to speak. His father George V, who clearly prefers him as a successor to his flighty older brother David, is too old-fashioned to tolerate such a psychological block, exasperatedly shouting at him to “Spit it out!” after asking him to read a speech; David, later King Edward VIII, charismatic but clearly unfit for the role of national father-figure, let-alone emperor, mocks his speech impediment and interprets his brothers criticism of his un-courtly manner in the worst possible way, as jealous ambition. Realizing that he is expected as the eldest to become king, David confides to Albert that he won’t be able to marry the twice-divorced American woman Wallis Simpson if he assumes the Crown. “I’m trapped!” he says in desperation, and anxiously walks off. Albert immediately starts smoking, clearly set off by the irony of his brother’s self-pity.
The film’s portrayal of cruelty is subtle but surprising. Without giving more away, the Liberal Ironist thinks the viewer should bear in mind that Albert never emerged from the shadow of certain childhood torments–some in which his brothers participated. He clearly feels love for his family, but he has long been trained to minimize his feelings. He is naturally left-handed, but was punished until he learned to write with his right hand. Logue informs Prince Albert–and us–that such “…corrections” are often associated with stuttering. These forms of psychological repression almost certainly contributed to Prince Albert’s temper as well.
The scene linked to above is a real crowd-pleaser, as Logue slumps into St. Edward’s Chair in Westminster Abbey. There are a number of scenes where Logue demands that Prince Albert accept him as an equal and confidant, most-notably insisting on calling him only “Bertie” rather than the conventional “Prince Albert…sir.” While such scenes appear to be another bland triumph for egalitarian sentiment over inherited privilege, that isn’t their real significance. Prince Albert makes the point–and he is right–that if there were no difference between a prince and another man, there wouldn’t be this urgency to his quest to gain control of his voice. But Logue is nonetheless precisely the man to help him overcome his stuttering–as evidenced by his strict insistence that Prince Albert always be treated in his office. He believes that on some level stutterers are blocked by their fear, and there is no way to give those fears a name without the kind of reflection possible when alone with a peer. (This premise seems to substantially paraphrase Freud.) Prince Albert has grown up without peers, without friends–with no one to call him “Bertie” and mean it. This would be sad-enough if he weren’t also the right man to lead a nation in dark times, yet barely able to say a single word for himself.
The Guardian has a brief, exclusive clip from the film on its website. This scene is one of several worth particular attention; it portrays a key moment where another man feels close to Prince Albert and is unable to say so. Winston Churchill later discloses 1 reason for his preference for Albert as king in a brief exchange, one that makes the almost-invisible moment of this earlier scene positively touching.
Another brief scene that appears in the trailer divulges the gravity of this story, as it has rarely been so important for a king to express himself well. Prince Albert, newly-crowned King George VI, watches a newsreel with his family–and sees footage of Hitler rousing the masses for the first time:
“Daddy, what is he saying?” a young future Queen Elizabeth II asks him.
“I don’t know,” King George VI answers, “but he seems to be saying it rather well…” The Liberal Ironist thought this was one of the scenes that gave The King’s Speech its coherence, underscoring as it does the essential tragedy: A man of character such as Prince Albert must remake himself as King George VI by playing Hitler’s game. Much as his father George V presciently decried the interaction of democracy and technology to create the expectation that royalty succeed as celebrity, a man as monstrous as Hitler can succeed in the politics of dark times by “connecting” with people through their resentments. Prince Albert is possessed of great dignity, an abiding sense of responsibility to his family and a serious patriotism–but the times demand primarily the communication of those qualities rather than their embodiment, as the popularity of his brother’s brief kingship can further attest. His father tormented him because he always believed that he could and had to express himself to his people, and his brother tormented him because he believed he never would, and that such things didn’t matter anyway. But a king’s address to his people did matter, simply because a man with such excreble words as Hitler said them well. The Liberal Ironist generally avoids such metaphors as a rule, but Albert’s need to communicate his character and purposes when only the communication was in question reminds me as strongly of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as anything.
The climax keeps you guessing. The shadows that fall on King George VI are long, and are not the sort that can be dispelled. But he learns their names, and they give him an awareness of cruelty that others of his caste lack. Have you any doubt of that?
You can hear the difference in his voice.