“The Rituals of Speaking”: Revisiting ‘The King’s Speech’ 10 years later
The King's Speech
The King’s Speech has been celebrated by many critics as a beautiful lesson in filmmaking. It has been denounced by others who labelled it with terms like “Oscar bait” (it won four out of 12 nominations, including a Best Picture Award) because it panders to American Anglophilia. Even though ten years have passed since it was first released, it is still too early to decide whether the picture has stood the test of time. However, the fact that we’re still talking about it is proof enough that it is still a relevant, extremely well-crafted film which deserves to be revisited, if only for its achievements in visual narrative if nothing else.
The film opens with an incident from 1925, when King George V asked his second son, the Duke of York—who was portrayed by Colin Firth, a fantastic performance, to give the closing speech at the Empire Exhibition in Wembley. Director Tom Hooper introduces us to the performative world of the art of oration through a man who gargles, sprays his mouth while preparing to use the microphone, a whimsically exaggerated depiction of the rituals of speaking. We see the onslaught of modernity in the form of cars, elevators and most importantly, the omnipresent radio. George VI, or Bertie (as his family calls him), suffers from a speech impediment that makes him stutter. An aristocrat who cannot speak to his subjects comes across as painfully ironic but as the camera closes in on Bertie’s face, we can feel the nation’s eyes on him and the anxiety becomes almost tangible. The wonderful score from Alexandre Desplat contributes immensely to this atmospheric tension. All the doctors and experts advise Bertie to enhance the “mechanics” of speaking by smoking cigarettes and shoving sterilized marbles in his mouth but none of it helps, at least until his wife (played by Helena Bonham Carter) discovers speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
A major part of the magic of The King’s Speech is the on-screen chemistry that Bertie and Lionel share. Irreverent and equipped with a great sense of humour, the unconventional therapist slowly disarms Bertie who’s always anxious and on edge. Having served as a solider, Lionel is aware of the legacy of trauma and how it manifests itself. He tries to uncover the psychological issues which haunt Bertie but faces staunch resistance from the proud aristocrat. Refusing to use institutional terms like “Doctor” or “Your Majesty” to address each other, Lionel works relentlessly towards creating an informal space where Bertie will feel confident enough to confide in a friend, something he never had. The future king reveals how his brother, Edward VIII, used to taunt him when they were children and how his father used to yell at him to get his words out. Bertie was forced to use his right hand even though he was naturally left-handed. Lionel recognises all the psychological symptoms but the aristocratic straitjacket that Bertie grew up wearing is a metaphorical one, an adopted identity that was thrust on him without his consent.
Critics have rightly pointed out that some historical distortion takes place in the film. Bertie’s brother is shown as a womaniser who is completely obsessed with his lover. Since she is a divorcee, the morally conservative church cannot recognize her as a queen. When Edward VIII abdicates the throne, we finally see Bertie as the king of the nation. Despite the film’s insistence, Edward VIII had other major flaws, including fascist sympathies for Hitler and a penchant for appeasement (something that George VI initially believed in as well). The film shows Churchill expressing his doubts about Edward VIII which is historically inaccurate because the world famous leader supported Edward during this critical period. Tom Hooper also cuts from 1936 (the year when Bertie ascended the throne) to 1939 (the year that war was declared), leaving out a substantial portion of history when the British government actually tried to appease the Nazis. Of course, the narrative of the film is more focused on Bertie’s psychological battle than the socio-political truths of the time but this deviation ends up diminishing the essence of the film to some extent.
The relationship between George VI and Logue, a king and a commoner, is central to the film’s explorations. Even though Lionel is a speech therapist, he has anxieties of his own and suffers from stage fright. He only feels liberated enough to perform in front of his children, just like Bertie fights through his speech impediment to tell his daughters bedtime stories. The colossal difference in their respective social statuses ceases to matter when we begin to see how similar they are in certain ways. Lionel’s constant iconoclasm plays a major part in this as well. In a brilliant scene, the camera pans out from a close-up of Bertie’s face to reveal Lionel sitting on the throne at Westminster Abbey, calling it “a chair.” Bertie shouts, “I have a voice!” and the impact of Lionel’s therapy becomes clear. He has helped George VI find his own voice, shedding the decadent attire of his family’s identity.
It seems somewhat premature to end a narrative right before the second world war breaks out but the denouement that the film builds up to is not the war but the king’s speech about the war, the responsibility of telling an entire country not to lose hope. The titular speech is set to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, creating a moment in film history that is truly spectacular. Logue guides him like the conductor of an orchestra, urging him to swear during pauses and find his own rhythm. As Bertie steadily makes his way through the famous speech, we see him slowly transforming into King George VI, the leader of his country. The audience finds it easier to breathe too because we had become accustomed to hearing his despaired stammering. This final scene is what brings everything together, beautifully resolving cinematic tension. Making perfect use of fluid camerawork and impeccable sound design, The King’s Speech is a textbook example of effective visual narrative. It also leaves us with some insightful political commentary, like George V’s disconsolate statement about the meaninglessness of aristocracy in the modern world:
“Now, we must invade people’s homes and ingratiate ourselves with them. This family’s been reduced to those lowest, basest of all creatures. We’ve become actors.”