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To speak or not to speak?

kingsspeech_01The King’s Speech, a film about how an unorthodox Australian speech therapist helps the British King George VI overcome his serious stammering problem, has been widely acclaimed by critics and audiences alike. It won seven BAFTAs and seven Golden Globe awards including best actor which went to Colin Firth, for his outstanding portrayal of a man agonised by his inability to speak. The film is also about the friendship that develops between the King and his  therapist Lionel Logue ( whose family once hailed from Dublin).The latter is played superbly by Geoffry Rush, who dominates the screen. Indeed, according to psychotherpaist and hospital chaplain Brendan Staunton SJ  in his review below, he is the hero of the story.The King’s Speech.

Directed by Tom Hooper. 118 minutes.

To speak or not to speak? That is the question answered by this fabulous film which could have been called “The Talking Cure”

Fabulous is the wrong word, as the plot is the true story of how King George V1 got over his stammer to deliver a resounding speech rallying his people on the eve of war, the 3rd of September 1939.

This is in stark contrast to a previous speech delivered in 1925 as Albert Duke of York at an Exhibition opening. On that occasion his nervous stutter inhibited his expressions and the ensuing embarrassment was palpable.

In between the opening failure and the closing success is a relationship with a speech therapist, the death of George V, the ultimatum to Germany about Poland, and the abdication of Edward V111, who married an American divorcee, (shock, horror!).

The historical background and Albert’s personal struggle are beautifully balanced; family and culture are two sides of the one coin. But the core of the story is the unconventional character of Lionel Logue, a caring, straight talking Aussie, who cuts through the Royal aloofness and gets to the root of the King’s inhibition.
He insists for example on calling the King “Bertie”, and on treating him in his own Harley Street basement. His methods are modern, unlike the more qualified therapists who had been consulted in the previous nine years. One had even recommended smoking as a way to relax the larynx! Another put marbles in Albert’s mouth, an idea that went back to the Greeks!
Lionel had gone beyond these techniques, influenced by his experience of treating people stressed out after returning from war in Australia. His love of Shakespeare and acting also played a role in the development of his unique method of treatment.

But it was the ghost of Freud that governed his approach. Therefore language was the key for Lionel- memories and metaphors. No one is born a stutterer; something happens between the ages of two and five. And in the film there is a most moving moment when the King recalls how he was treated by a nanny as a young child. His relationship with a very difficult father and more favoured brother also comes in for scrutiny. The sessions are lively, tender and aggressive, culminating in the clarity of an outburst during a tense moment rehearsing for the coronation ceremony: “I have a voice”!

Just as the turning point in Hamlet is when the Prince of Denmark, struggling with Ophelia’s brother in the grave, shouts out “I am Hamlet the Dane”, the psychological parallel is telling.

Colin Firth as the uneasy King deserves all the awards he has already received for acting of the highest quality, but the hero is the therapist with no established credentials whatsoever. His heroic status is underscored by the Director giving him the final closing close-up, indicating who he wants to have the final say or last word. (The script is based on his journals or diaries, which luckily have survived, and were available to the scriptwriter, himself a stammer sufferer.)

Helena Bonham Carter is a wonderful wife: it is she who refers her husband to Lionel and makes the initial contact under an assumed name, not letting on the royal reality.

Waiting for Godot has been described as a play where nothing happens twice! Well, this is a film where everything happens at least twice: aerial shots, family meals, country scenes, public speeches, political meetings, radio speeches. But it is the sharp and witty dialogue that sparkles the screen.

The film is silent on Edward’s and George’s Nazi sympathies, or on aligning themselves with Hitler, and the Archbishop of Canterbury is represented as a clerical buffoon, sitting on his high horse of privilege and power. Queen Mary is also portrayed in an unflattering light, affectively undeveloped, with an aversion to hugging.  Churchill is a caricature.
But it is a film well worth seeing, consistent with Tom Hooper’s other films, which feature outsiders like the football manager Brian Clough in Damned United.
The music of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms is marvellous. Twelve Oscar nominations deserved.

Brendan Staunton S.J.