stam·mer (v): to speak with involuntary breaks and pauses, or with spasmodic repetitions of syllables or sounds.
Imagine if you will, standing before a microphone in which you will be addressing millions of anxiously awaiting people. For many, this will be their first time ever hearing your voice. You will be delivering momentous news, of which will affect the lives of many and their loved ones…not to mention the trajectory of a nation and of the world. Your speech is prepared, you know the words, but as you open your mouth to speak…you are paralyzed with the fear that the words simply will not come.
Now imagine that you are the King of England on September 3, 1939, and that you are delivering the somber news that your country has declared war on Germany. Your countrymen look to you for confidence, courage, and leadership. Your older brother, Edward (and rightful heir to the throne by birth), has abdicated his right as King, thrusting you into a position that you were never groomed for…the position that you now find yourself in. Oh! Did I mention that, since the age of 8, you suffer from a debilitating stammer?
This is the premise of the excellent movie, “The King’s Speech” starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter. The story of King George VI and his rapid ascension to the throne of England at a time when his country needed him the most…and at a time in which he did not feel worthy of carrying the burden and responsibility of the Monarchy. It is also the story of the unconventional speech therapist who helped a King find his voice.
A Historical Review of the Details
King George VI (born Albert Frederick Arthur George, the Prince of Wales) was the second eldest son of King George V. The eldest brother – and heir to the throne of England – was Edward (born Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, the Duke of Windsor).
Prince Albert (as I’ll call him for now) suffered from a stammer since an early age, brought on by a number of external causes that are later revealed in the movie. However, one does not have to think long and hard to assume that living in the shadow of his older brother – and future King – may have had a part to play.
For years, Prince Albert (played by Colin Firth) had sought treatment by many renowned speech therapists to assist him, but to no avail. This is until he meets Lionel Logue, an unorthodox Australian speech therapist lacking any credentials. The meeting is orchestrated by Albert’s wife, Elizabeth (and mother to the current Queen Elizabeth), who is desperate to help her husband overcome his condition.
The two men first met in 1926, in a dingy set of rooms at the cheap end of Harley Street in the heart of Britain’s medical establishment that Logue had rented after arriving, virtually penniless, with his wife and three sons on the boat from Australia just two years earlier. Prince Albert (or “Bertie” as he was referred to by those closest to him), saw his condition worsen after he was made Prince of Wales, of which required him to speak at official engagements. The meeting between Bertie and Logue was prompted (despite Bertie’s insistence that he’d had enough of speech therapists) after a particularly humiliating speech in front of thousands of people at the British Empire exhibition in Wembley…which is also the opening scene of the movie.
We also learn that King George V (the father) is beginning to believe that his eldest son, Edward, may not ascend to the throne due to his insistence on carrying on a relationship with an American divorcee from Baltimore by the name of Wallis Simpson. As King – and head of the Church of England – it is not permitted to marry someone who has been divorced, as divorce is not permitted (nor recognized) by the Church. This puts additional pressure on Bertie, as he is expected to fulfill many of the speaking engagements his older brother has been neglecting due to the “distraction” his relationship with Wallis Simpson is causing.
In early scenes of the movie, you begin to get a greater sense of the responsibility and duty that Bertie feels towards his place in the royal family. He wishes to rise to the eloquence of his father as he begins to accept the urgency and increased requirement of him to speak at public engagements – and he wishes to succeed – save for his condition. This urgency is what prompts him to accept the help of Lionel Logue whose unorthodox methods provide for some of the funniest moments of the film.
Hollywood Versus History
During my research for this review, I found that much of what is portrayed throughout the movie is – in fact – true to history. As someone who already possesses a passionate interest in the events surrounding (and during) WWII, this discovery made the film even more enjoyable knowing that creative license was used sparingly.
The only liberties it seems that the movie makers made was that Churchill (in the movie) supported the abdication of Edward and in the insistence by Logue that he be allowed to refer to the future King as, “Bertie”. This was a construct within the film intended for the character to establish that, in order to help Albert, they must be able to interact as equals. Diaries and letters between the men in real life illustrate that Logue was far more deferential to Albert.
In a wonderful scene after the two men meet for the first time, there is a great exchange between them as Logue tries to establish this “condition” of his agreement to treat Albert…as though he (Logue) could ever choose NOT to treat His Royal Highness. During this first meeting, Logue helps to reveal that Albert’s condition can, in fact, be “cured”, when he asks whether the Prince stammers within his own thoughts or when speaking to himself, to which Albert responds that he does not. To further illustrate his point, Logue wagers a bet that the Prince can read a full passage from “Hamlet” flawlessly, without the stammer. Understandably, Bertie doubts that this is possible and reluctantly accepts the bet.
Prior to his first attempt to utter the famous refrain, “To be or not to be…”, Logue indicates that he would like to record the Prince, using a new phonograph recording device from America. He then proceeds to place headphones over Albert’s ears, over which music is playing. Albert protests that he is unable to hear himself think, which you can very quickly surmise is exactly the point.
Frustrated by Logue’s methods – and without hearing the recording – Albert leaves Logue’s office and refuses to work with him. It is only later in the movie, after a humiliating exchange with his father (the King) and out of frustration / desperation, does Albert finally play and hear (you guessed it!) the stammer-free recording of his own voice that leads to his belief that Logue may be able to help him after all.
What follows is a span of years in which Bertie continues to see Logue, works diligently on his exercises and we are treated to some of the entertaining methods that Logue employs. It is important to note that Bertie’s progress does not happen overnight. Keep in mind that the two men met in 1926…and even up to (and beyond) September 1936, Bertie continued to struggle with his stammer.
During the years of treatment, Bertie endures the death of his father, The King. See’s Edward ascend to the throne, only to abdicate months later (as he instead chooses to marry Wallis Simpson) and leaving Albert / Bertie the new King of England, in which he takes the name George VI after his father.
It should be noted that King George VI and Lionel Logue remained close friends until their deaths. Logue continued to work with George throughout most of his life and it was not until 1944 that George was able to give his first important speech without Logue by his side.
The King’s Speech
Which brings us to the name of the movie…as everything leading up to the speech is past and prologue to this momentous moment in history. Bertie’s arduous struggle with his stammer persisted for years (with improvement and increased success at speaking engagements…including his own coronation as King)…so much so that the only person allowed in the room during the speech, was Logue.
In order to help calm his nerves (as crowds could compound his condition), the actual speech was given in a very small room with the King’s jacket casually cast aside and with nothing more than a microphone, his typed speech and Logue staring back at him. The British people later saw the following photo, which was taken moments after the speech, in order to give his address a more “Royal” appearance.
I really can’t say enough good things about this movie. The performances by Firth and Rush are simply outstanding and I would not be surprised if both of them received Oscar nods this year as a result. Helena Bonham Carter also nicely complemented the movie with a very charming performance…bringing to life Elizabeth’s love of her husband and evident/sincere desire to help him.
Firth, especially, delivered a tremendous portrayal of Albert / Bertie / King George VI. It could be found in the nuances and slight improvements to his stammer over time that is never called attention to, but that can’t be overlooked. There is no montage of treatment (well, actually there sort of is), but no montage in which at the end he suddenly has perfect diction. I was so impressed by the subtleties in which he demonstrated Bertie’s years of hard work.
When it comes to movies, I tend to write reviews that bring a little more color and context to the subject matter…especially if it is based on true historical events. There is so much more I could say, but I would rather end this review with the hope that I have piqued your interest enough to go and see the movie for yourselves.
I know that the subject matter is narrow in terms of the demographic that it will appeal to. This movie does not have a wide release, nor will it stay in theaters for months. There are no explosions, no sex scenes, no overly-dramatic conflict…but what it does deliver is a great script, performed by talented actors and a story that is (I shudder to say it) heartwarming.
– Dana Sciandra
The following is the actual speech given by King George VI on September 3, 1939. The pauses in its recital are intentional and were part of the exercises that Albert would methodically go through before speaking to reduce any evidence of his stammer. “P’s” and “K’s” were especially difficult for him. At the time, they were heard as dramatic pauses to help drive home the weight of its message, especially since millions were hearing their King’s voice for the first time.
It is not until later that his struggles with a stammer were widely known.