The tragic death of Alireza Pahlavi happened barely two weeks after the release of The King’s Speech, a popular film about the psychologically tormented younger brother of Britain’s heir to the throne. Watching the film so soon after Alireza’s suicide, I suspect he missed this inspiring work of art that had appeared in time to speak to him. The vivid portrayal of Prince Albert--who later became King George VI through an improbable twist of fate—would have lifted his spirit and occupied his mind with positive thoughts of his burden.
Albert did not suffer from depression like Alireza; his symptom was a stutter that made it painful for him to speak in public. The countless ceremonies, openings, and welcomes in which a prince of the royal court must wax eloquent were embarrassments both for him and his audience. The most celebrated experts in the land tried their remedies on him, but there was only so much futile humiliation a prince could endure. After all Albert (played by Collin Firth) was not a flower girl off the streets who could put up with Professor Higgins packing marbles in her mouth. As a desperate gamble, Albert’s wife, Elizabeth (played by Helena Bonham Carter) appealed to an obscure speech therapist, Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush). Logue insightfully recognized that Albert’s stutter had roots in his childhood. But how do you convince a prince to open up to a commoner about such intimate matters? This is a humiliation beyond having marbles stuffed in your mouth.
So far the plot tension is in Albert’s personal battle with his condition, and the metaphors have to do with the path to a cure being blocked by the class barrier between the wealthy nobility and the commoner with the power of knowledge, a confirmation of our intuitive reverence for social equality. The film would have stood brilliantly on this elm behtar ast yaa servat argument, yet this turns out to be just the starting point for a vastly more engaging story when events twist so that victory or defeat is no longer about Albert. His brother, Edward, abdicates the throne to marry a divorced woman, and Albert becomes king of England just as Hitler is on the rise in Germany, threatening World War II. Could matters get any worse? Yes, they can: these events unfold at a time when radio is taking over as the primary means by which leaders communicate with the people. Hitler sweeps the German nation off her senses with his hypnotic oratory while the king of England stutters!
Now Albert has no choice but to break the class barrier with Logue. The fate of the nation depends on the king submitting to his subject and baring his soul to him—and through the story, to us. We discover how Albert has internalized the political need not to outshine his older brother. As King George VI, Albert verbalizes it this way: “If I am King, where is my power? Can I declare war? Form a government? Levy a tax? No! And yet I am the seat of all authority because they think that when I speak, I speak for them.” As the younger brother to the heir to the throne Albert had been daily confronted since childhood with the reality that the seat of all authority, beyond all power, is his brother’s singular authority to speak. Sensing the importance of this from all directions, young Albert’s subconscious had made sure he would remain loyal to this principle. In self-sacrificing irony, his brain impaired its own ability to speak. This way, no matter how much talent, magnetism or wit he possessed, he could never interfere with his brother’s responsibility as the seat of all authority.
As fate would have it, England did need Albert to speak for her at a time of high crisis. A good part of Logue’s psychotherapy had to do with encouraging Albert to come out of his psychological self-exile. His first attempt caused Albert to furiosly accuse Logue of high treason and shut him out. This reminds us that self-empowerment therapy for patients in Alireza’s position has an unusual pitfall that therapists aren’t normally trained to deal with. Had Logue been unfortunate enough to have a clinically depressed close-to-the-throne client instead of a stutterer, he may have lost his royal patient to suicide.
A plot can only reveal so much, however; the nuances are in the acting and directing. Geoffrey Rush, as Logue, amazes in one scene where his character auditions disastrously for a play part—I have never seen bad acting acted so well. Colin Firth wisely refuses transformation from insecure prince to confident king. The two aspects always exist side by side even in moments of triumph. And under the direction of Tom Hooper, Helena Bonham Carter loses her edginess without losing her sharp edge in the slightest. My only disappointment is that Alireza isn’t around to tell us his take on a movie that’s a little bit about him.
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