July / Aug 2011: BY RUTH ANDERSON
Considering my life-long love affair with early 20th century history, I knew appallingly little about the life of George VI, the centerpiece of the recent film The King’s Speech. My awareness of him was limited to history books or the occasional appearance in a war-era drama, and none of these sources addressed his struggles with a speech impediment. Born after his charismatic elder brother Edward, dealing with a crippling stammer was bad enough without the pressure of being heir to the throne. But all that changed when Edward decided if he could not have the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson, he wanted nothing to do with the throne, leaving Bertie and his stammer to be thrust into a most unwelcome spotlight.
In the increasingly media-centered world of the 1930s, a sovereign’s image was no longer formed by images. In radio and film, his words can carry weight and rally people to his side or leave them cowering in fear. For a man with a stammer, the problem must have seemed overwhelming. Yet with help of Lionel Logue, a highly unconventional speech therapist, George VI found his voice, and it’s that intimate, personal story, set against the onset of World War II, that unfolds herein. Prior to seeing this, I never imagined watching a story where the main plot device of a speech impediment could be so gripping or get me as emotionally involved as it did, but when you have a sympathetic, engaging character, made all the more compelling because he was real, and a tour-de-force performance from a great actor pouring his heart and soul into the role, you can’t help but be moved. Colin Firth is a revelation. I find myself exhausted from the emotional investment I felt when watching him. The painful effort with which Firth shows how hard it was for Bertie to articulate his thoughts and feelings left me completely wrung out as a viewer. It would be easy to view this as “simply” a historic biopic, but it’s so much more than that—it’s about overcoming physical struggles, yes, but beyond that it’s about overcoming fear—and who hasn’t been attacked by that monster?
The man that forces Bertie to face his fears and step into his destiny as George VI is Lionel Logue, his Australian speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush). Logue was a brilliant, innovative maverick. He had no formal training. All his therapies and expertise were based on his hands-on experience with shell-shocked war veterans in Australia. He had to push through centuries-old social constraints in order to gain Bertie’s trust and address the issues at the root of the Prince’s stammer. Lionel and Bertie gradually formed a fast friendship that grew to transcend their social and class differences, but in order to get to that point they go through an unbelievable refining fire that tests each man’s resolve to the near breaking point.
Another critical player in this gradual transformation is Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth. My awareness of “The Queen Mother” prior to this was limited to knowledge of a universally beloved member of the royal family, up to her death at the age of 101. I’ve always had a notion that she must have been a force to be reckoned with to stand up to the London Blitz and serve as family matriarch through the turbulent years the royals have seen in my lifetime, but I never suspected the pivotal role she played in supporting her husband and seeking treatment options for his stutter. Helena Bonham Carter gives the woman due justice with her regal and gracious performance. I have far more respect for the real-life counterpart now. If their marriage was half as strong as this portrays it, I’m blown away by the warmth and depth of their relationship.
Bertie’s parents are played by Claire Bloom and Michael Gambon. The parent/child dynamic is fascinating and heartbreaking to witness. Not only is there the traditional British “stiff upper lip” mentality to contend with, but there is a wrenching lack of understanding or empathy for Bertie’s speech struggles and how to cope with it, which fosters blistering tension in the royal father/son relationship. This sad dynamic is the focus of one heartbreaking scene that marks the first time Bertie opens up to Lionel shortly after his father’s death. He imparts details of physical abuse at the hands of a nanny who preferred Edward, as well as what would be referred to today as emotional abuse or neglect from his parents. The very people who could have helped Bertie the most instead made the situation worse due to a lack of understanding and the strict demands of the position they were expected to uphold. When you see Bertie as a man only a breath away from the throne, who only wanted his father’s approval (only given on his deathbed and even then not to him personally) I dare you not to weep.
The King’s Speech defies categorization. It’s not a “stuttering” film, though it will make you think about the difficulties of coping with that in a new and much more informed light. It’s a story of how one copes with life as it changes in a flash and finds the courage to face one’s worst fears. The thought that Edward, the “golden” child, would abdicate was not even a blip on anyone’s radar during Bertie’s childhood. Certainly, he was second in line to the throne but he was viewed as very much the spare heir. When Edward chose a life with Wallis Simpson over the responsibility of kingship, not only did Bertie have to radically change his plans and view of his life, but so did his wife. One of my favorite scenes occurs shortly before the coronation, when Bertie breaks down sobbing about never wanting (or even being worthy) to be king. Elizabeth reminds him that he had to propose marriage to her three times before she’d accept, because she wasn’t sure she wanted life in the public eye… but she thought he “stammered so beautifully,” she couldn’t say no. Not only is it a beautiful illustration of love and true commitment, but think about the ramifications of her “yes”—being a wartime queen was more than she bargained for in marrying the younger prince.
Early in the story Bertie’s daughters request a bedtime story. The herculean effort and bravery required to complete such a simple task broke my heart. But Bertie did it. And the love for his children that allowed him to tell that story is a foreshadowing of the love and extraordinary friendship that equips Bertie, the man who never wanted to be king, to be the leader and voice of a nation in its darkest hour. The titular speech, his first during the war, is a suspenseful one that succeeds brilliantly in giving viewers a feel for what it must have been like to live during that time, literally hanging on every word spilling from your radio.
This film is a powerful portrait of the life-changing gift of friendship and a moving reminder of faith in the face of fear. The next time you think about how far God’s brought you through whatever your valley may be, I challenge you to take an extra moment and thank Him for the people He placed in your life to help you. That is, perhaps, the greatest gift of The King’s Speech. ■