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The Royal Stutter

The Royal Stutter

The King's Speech

He was born left-handed but forced to use his right. As a child he was abused by his nanny, and wore splints on his legs to correct knock knees. He lived in the shadow of his suave, popular brother. And he had a hugely debilitating stammer.

Sometimes, it’s not so good to be the king.

You can bank on this: Colin Firth will be getting a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in The King’s Speech. Nor will that be the only award for what is, as far as I have seen, the most respectably audience-pleasing film of the year.

Born in 1895, Albert Frederick Arthur George Windsor came of age when the British empire included 25 percent of the world’s population. But the dawn of the era of mass communications placed new demands on its leaders. No longer was it enough, as his father says, for a king to “look good in a uniform and not fall off his horse.” Albert’s problems in meeting the requirements of a modern leader are clear as he gives his first public speech at the closing of the British Empire Exhibition in 1925. His stammer is so severe that he can barely squeeze a syllable out, with loudspeakers amplifying his every gasp and tic.

As the younger brother of his family, Albert’s duties are expected to be limited. His older brother David will become Edward VIII on the death of their father, though not for very long: Mrs. Wallis Simpson is waiting in the wings. Albert will have to ascend to the throne, and at a time when his country is in desperate need of leadership. War looms with a country in the thrall of a very forceful speaker indeed, Adolf Hitler.

History is mostly backdrop to the real story here, the relationship between Albert and Lionel Logue (an equally strong performance by Geoffrey Rush), the unconventional speech therapist his wife hires after every other doctor proves unable to deal with Albert’s stammer. An Australian immigrant with no formal training, Logue learned his craft tending to shell-shocked soldiers in World War I.

Firth and Rush make for a perfect odd couple, and The King’s Speech milks a lot of humor from the differences between the hothouse-grown royal and the commoner who, as an immigrant, is regarded with at least mild disdain by “real” Brits. The dialogue includes plenty of the kind of japes against royalty that the British love, cheeky but never fatal. (When Albert’s wife Elizabeth, splendidly played by Helena Bonham Carter, interviews Lionel without telling him who he will be treating, she describes the stress her husband is other. “He should change jobs,” Lionel advises. “He can’t.” “Indentured servitude?” “Something like that.”)

That Lionel manages to knock some of the stuffing out of Albert is inevitable but vastly entertaining nonetheless. Encouraging him to practice using rude words leads to Albert launching into a string including almost all of George Carlin’s “seven words.” (In the inane logic of the MPAA, this scene alone got the film an R rating, which could not be more idiotic—no parent should think twice about whether to take children to see this.)

As directed by Tom Hooper, who did the HBO miniseries John Adams and the fine soccer drama The Damned United, The King’s Speech is perfectly calculated in every aspect, from the supporting players (including Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Timothy Spall, and Guy Pearce, excellent as Edward VIII) to the off-kilter compositions using sets that capture the slightly oppressive nature of life in an empire that has passed its peak.

At the Toronto International Film Festival, where The King’s Speech won the People’s Choice award for Best Film, Colin Firth and screenwriter David Seidler appeared at a press conference for the film. Seidler, who is old enough to remember the reign of George VI, spoke about how he became interested in the subject.

Seidler: Very simple—I was a stutterer. As a very young boy I was transported from England to the United States. The trauma of that started a very severe stutter. As the war progressed, my parents allowed me to listen to the radio, and they said, “Listen to the king’s speeches because he stuttered very, very badly and listen to him now,” and it gave me hope that one day I could be cured.

So he was always a hero of mine. And I always thought, as I grew up and liked telling lies and therefore was going to be a writer, that one day I wanted to tell Bertie’s story. In 1979 I wrote Tucker for Francis Ford Coppola. I was very young and naïve, and I was under the impression this movie would get made instantly and change my life. It got made 10 years later. I was also under the illusion that I could do anything in Hollywood after that. Which was not the way things happened. But I decided to try and do Bertie, so I did research and I kept getting these little blips on the screen called Lionel Logue. There’s not much written about him—the royal family does not like to talk about the royal stutter, but I sensed that there was a story there.

[I wrote to] a son of Lionel Logue, Valentine. He was now an elderly gentleman, a retired Harley Street brain surgeon. He said, “Yes, come to London and I’ll talk to you about it—I’ve got all my father’s notebooks about treating the king.”

This was the motherlode, but there was a caveat—he would only do it if I could get permission from the Queen Mother. So I wrote to her and got a response [from her secretary], saying “Please. Not in my lifetime. The memory of these events is still too painful.” So I decided to wait. How long could it take? She’s a very old lady. Thirty years later she did leave us. Shortly thereafter, I was diagnosed with cancer. You get a little upset about things like that, but after a couple of days I decided that being upset was not going to do me any good, because being upset suppresses the immune system, and that’s your best friend. And I thought, if I don’t tell Bertie’s story now I never will.

AV: [To Colin Firth] Did you work with a speech therapist?

Firth: No, but I consulted several people. We had a dialect coach with us, because in the discovery of the stammer had to be quite personal and it had to be specific to this individual. It had to come from some visceral place but it also had to be monitored for the sake of the drama, because if this guy takes 20 minutes to get a word out, it’s going to affect the pace somewhat.

So you have to find something which is not only authentic and expressive but isn’t painful in a way that people resist it. [That] was one of [director Tom Hooper’s] early stated concerns, how to pace it, to score it if you like. When are the relapses, how much can we afford to dwell in painful silences. Having established them, can we afford to pick up the pace.

We did have a speech therapist come to us during rehearsal who gave us some very useful advice about the different forms it can take. My sister is a a voice therapist and she was helpful in terms of the kind of exercises that can be done. The montage sequence, where I’m running around and swinging my arms, most of those came from her.

But the best consultant I had was [David Seidler], because he was so compelling about what you do in life to negotiate round the speech problems, It has a profound effect on your identity because you don’t do what you want to do, you do what you can do—not saying “hello” on the phone, not ordering the beef because you can’t get the “b” out so you order the fish instead. You make choices according to these limitations. That insight and what my sister gave me were definitely the most useful help I got.

AV: What do you think was the turning point for Albert to start trusting Lionel?

Firth: I think what I admired most about the structure of this piece is that it doesn’t pivot on one moment. Like any credible relationship portrayal it ebbs and it flows, it has breaking points, it’s cyclical, it’s like a marriage. You see that trust being tussled over the whole time.

AV: What themes attracted you to this film?

Firth: One of the themes that interested me most was about the possibilities of one human being reaching another one. Are we ever capable of doing that? Even with your own children you can’t fully. You’d love to be able to reach in and take someone’s pain away but you can’t. So you use language for that, you use all kinds of means of expression. For me the film is about Logue’s pursuit of that. The fact that [his patient] is a member of the royal family means the challenges are very explicit. You can’t even call him by his first name, you have to bow and the man refuses to allow any more intimacy than that. It starts off with a complete lack of trust, but I suspect Bertie is intrigued by this man’s nerve. I think the reason he stays in that room so long is because the mischief appeals to him. I think it’s love at first sight, quite frankly!

Watch the trailer for The King's Speech

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