The King's Speech portrays stammering well

I’ve just taken the afternoon off with my wife to see The King’s Speech. It’s a movie that I highly recommend. As a stammerer myself, I found that I very much lived the film.

Be warned, spoilers follow!

Scene from the film - speech.

The film opens with Prince Albert (Colin Firth), second in line to the throne, preparing to give a speech to close the 1924 Empire Exhibition. He must speak in front of the large crowd at Wembley, and his address is transmitted live around the world on the new wireless radio. He struggles to start the speech, and continues to stammer (with a lot of long and silent “blocks”). Colin Firth conveys this upsetting, traumatic and frustrating experience well, so that I think many in the cinema audience would have shared the discomfort of the crowds watching in the film.

We continue with the Prince, accompanied by Princess Elizabeth his wife (Helena Bonham Carter), trying yet another form of speech therapy, which consists of smoking and trying to talk with a mouthful of marbles. The speech therapist states that this method worked for Demosthenes, to which the princess asks (para-phrasing), “has there been no progress since Ancient Greece?” A pertinent question, which characterizes the long journey we have taken and are still on to understand the complex and varied condition that we call a stammer (or stutter).

Prince Albert gives up the marbles in disgust, and vows not to try speech therapy again. However, his wife is recommended to an unconventional Antipodean speech therapist, Lionel Loge (Geoffrey Rush). She persuades the prince to give it a go. Lionel tries to investigate the private live of the Prince and the Royal Family, but is asked to simply treat the “mechanics” of the stammer. Initially he complies. So starts a long and tough regime of breathing, speech and relaxation exercises. They initially meet with some success, though when events conspire to put pressure on the Prince, the hard work seems to be undone.

The Prince is bullied by his father, King George V into practicing a Christmas radio address. I shared Prince Albert’s repressed anger and hurt at his rough treatment at the hands of his father (I told you I lived it!) There are further scenes where Prince Edward mocks and teases his younger brother for stammering.

Upon the death of the old King, and the abdication of his older brother, Prince Albert must become King against his will. He has fallen out with Lionel, but at this moment of crisis, he again turns to his speech therapist, to help him through the Coronation. We see the King in despair at the burden put on his shoulders and his perceived lack of skills for the job. At this point I shed tears too.

Poster from the film.

The climax of the film is the outbreak of the Second World War, and the long radio address that the new King, George VI must give live and at short notice. By using the relaxation techniques, and with the guidance of Lionel, the King gives a very moving and effective speech. The blocks (stammers) are turned into pauses, and the King speaks slowly by necessity, which suits the serious subject. He finally starts to prove to himself that he is equipped for his new role.

The film is interesting on many fronts. Lionel is eventually able to probe the King’s childhood and youth, full of repression, teasing, loneliness and the death of his younger brother. I came away with a lot of sympathy for the constraints and responsibilities faced by royalty, for all their privileges. And we experience the inner workings of a Royal Family that is making a shaky transition from the old to the new. We see the unconventional relationship between the straight-talking and unconventional Logue, and the Establishment. There is the initially uncomfortable relationship between the therapist Logue and his client, which eventually leads to a close and trusting friendship. There is also the significant backdrop of the build up to World War. At one point, we are invited to compare the King’s lack of oratory skills with his contemporaries Hitler and Churchill (though by the end of the film, the balance changes somewhat).

Scene from the film.

It is important to note that the King is not “cured” of his stammer. Norbert Liekfeldt, Chief Executive of the British Stammering Association puts it well, “you can see the King coming to an arrangement with his stammering”. Colin Firth gives a very authentic portrayal of what it means to stammer. And, though we can’t be certain about all the detail, Lionel Logue’s treatment, which combines psychology with physiology seems to have been revolutionary for its time.

This blog post needs a bit more work. It’s not as “personal” as I’d like. Anyway, I’m following my typical policy of just putting it out here regardless. I should note that while my family has been much more supportive of me, and I have been and am fortunate in my friends, I do share some common experiences with the King. In particular, I went through some “alternative” treatments for my stammer, namely hypnosis, and drama-based relaxation techniques. These weren’t as outlandish as the marbles, but in a similar fashion they dealt with the surface symptoms of a stammer, not the causes. I have also had the similar experience of repressed emotions, and a long journey to come to terms with my stammer. The most significant help I received was group therapy, while at University, at the Queen Elizabeth hospital Birmingham (c. 1999).

I came away from the film emotionally drained but uplifted. Though the subjects of the film are serious, the performances throughout are very entertaining, with effective use of comedy to lighten the mood and to make many significant points. Colin Firth’s portrayal of George VI is a stand-out performance. The result for me was completely immersive and I would totally recommend this film.

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