In Speechless Awe

“Some men are born great, others have greatness thrust uponthem.” — The King’s Speech

In a cyber age of mass communication with instant access to information, where all things past seem to be abruptly dismissed as obsolete, what makes an old fashioned film in a Victorian setting so appealing to contemporary audiences worldwide? …

The mystery of The King’s Speech’s phenomenal success seems to equally astonish its director Tom Hooper as well as its talented cast of splendid actors notably Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter in the title roles. At the centre of the plot of this small budget independent film is an anti-Pygmalion relationship between an unlikely royal figure struggling with a crippling stammer and his unconventional Australian speech therapist.

The heroes of The King’s Speech seem to shed some of their well-deserved acquired glory on our very own ordinary lives. Maybe because they are precisely “ordinary” people like us but faced with “extraordinary” challenges. It suggests there was a time when a member of the royal household experimented with psychoanalysis – disguised as speech therapy.

Which director or actor could have hoped for a better opportunity or a gem of a story to draw audiences to the theatre at a time when the world we live in seems to have never been so negatively disappointing and unglamorous?

The Reluctant Monarch

What looks at first like a conventional period drama about British royals is actually a witty and elegant new perspective on the abdication crisis in pre war Britain and the predicament of a reluctant king to be about to face his greatest challenge: deliver his first wartime speech aimed at uniting his country against the mounting Nazi threat.

Colin Firth gives a warm and convincing performance as ‘Bertie’ ( short for ‘Albert’), the Duke Of York, an introverted and uncomfortable stammerer. Bullied by his despotic father George V (Michael Gambon), and overshadowed by his older charismatic playboy brother, David (Guy Pearce) the Future King Edward VIII. Helena Bonham Carter is Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, his supportive wife who intuitively engages a new Australian speech therapist to help her husband.

This is the eccentric and undeferential Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush. Logue is a man who is confronted to his own doubts – frustrated not to have made it as a professional actor – and who is looked down as a colonial.

If for obvious dramatic purposes the film is not entirely accurate in its depiction, yet much of the events and characters described in the film (the script was penned by David Seidler – a former stammerer himself) are based on the historically well documented diaries of Lionel Logue, whose grandson Mark Logue, published prior to the film’s release (*).

Director Tom Hooper manages to deliver a film in tune with what makes British history and society so fascinating on film or in literature. One cannot help but be reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion except reversed in its social status quo. Where Henry Higgins had to get Eliza Doolittle to polish up and talk proper, Logue takes his initially reluctant royal pupil in the exactly opposite direction.

Prisoner to a rigid education respectful of protocol in all circumstances be it public or private, “Bertie”, is simply too inhibited and restrained.

Real doctors are of little help either: they stuff Bertie’s mouth with marbles and tell him that smoking will relax his lungs. Nothing seems to work. Bertie struggles even to tell bedtime stories to his children. He sinks into further despair after he delivers a speech at the 1925 British Empire Exhibition; unable to deliver a speech, his audience prefigure the end of empire.

The Controvesial Speech Therapist

In desperation, Bertie and his wife seek help from an unlikely source: an unsuccessful Australian actor named Lionel Logue who is working in London as a speech therapist. To say they don’t get on is an understatement. One is a commoner, the other a future monarch accustomed to looking down at people as they bow before him. To untie his tongue, Bertie has to relax, but also to talk about what makes him unhappy, as he has never done with anyone in his life before.

When his debonair brother abdicates, in order to marry an American divorcee Wallis Simpson, Bertie is thrust onto Saint Edward’s vacant chair and has to assume the heavy burden of kingship in a new era of radio where public speaking is a necessary requirement.When Logue’s methods get results, Bertie is delighted, and the eccentric therapist becomes part of his intimate circle which infuriates the palace establishment, particularly the Archbishop of Canterbury (Derek Jacobi).

Redefining the Term “Chivalry” in the Modern Age

In a sense by breaking the barrier of class and conventional social standards during his therapy sessions, Logue, thanks to his genuine behaviour, and special relationship with the King achieves where all other royal sycophants failed: developing his self confidence.

One that will also be fundamental in an age of rising totalitarianisms where dubious dictators like Adolf Hitler or Mussolini perfectly use the audiovisual medium in order to mesmerize their audience to uncanny effect.

Ironically King George VI’s intimate victory over his crippling demons becomes a turning point in that of the British Monarchy.

For the first time in an era of mass communication, a King goes from being a visual icon of divine kingship, to a personality emotionally connecting to his people, hence humanizing the royal institution and uniting his people in a common battle against tyranny.

Similarly, Logue the failed Australian actor with Republican sympathies, turned speech therapist, succeeds in reinventing the term “chivalry” by restoring its initial spirit: One which aims to serve one’s sovereign with the nobility of the heart and the purity of intentions whilst expecting nothing in return.

An Arthurian chivalresque definition so to speak, which would have most probably survived in time, be it in spirit, had it not been for the inevitable yet often disappointing practical realities of our modern age. A spirit which could well have been endorsed by another icon of the 20th century: President John F. Kennedy. So as to paraphrase his famous patriotic rhetoric: “Ask not what the crown can do for you, but what you can do for the crown!” (**)

For Logue not only manages to dismiss the “idiot’s” (sycophants so swiftly “knighted” by his imperial grace) in charge of supervising the King’s health, but more importantly helps his regal patient overcome his crippling predicament and hence save the monarchy single handedly.

An Enduring Friendship

As his mission comes to an end, Logue a commoner tolerated by the royals will learn at his own expense that his bromantic love affair with the monarch cannot last for ever. The King must fulfill his destiny and so must his therapist as they both witness, for a second time, their old Victorian world embark into one of the bloodiest conflicts of the modern age.

Author’s Notes

The King’s Speech is this year’s favorite Oscar contender with 12 Nominations. It is however in competition with David Fincher’s )

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