By Nils Skudra
One film that I have been moved to watch numerous times is Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, a 2010 biographical depiction of King George VI of Great Britain and the struggle to overcome his speech impediment. I felt that this would be a prime candidate for a film review since people ordinarily consider a speech impediment to be a disability, and it is often found among individuals with autism.
Speech therapy is commonly utilized to help individuals improve their stammering so that they may enunciate more clearly when speaking. This film portrays how George VI’s working relationship with a speech therapist played a pivotal role in making him a much more effective monarch during a critical time in British history.
The film opens during the closing ceremony of the British Empire Exhibition in October 1925, in which Prince Albert, Duke of York (portrayed by Colin Firth) is scheduled to deliver the keynote address. After nervously reviewing his speech with his wife Elizabeth, Duchess of York (portrayed by Helena Bonham-Carter), who assures him that he will do well, the Duke makes his way to the podium. However, when he begins the address, he speaks with a highly pronounced and uncontrollable stammer which forces him to strain while forming his words and consequently gesticulate despairingly. This experience proves to be a source of distress for Duchess Elizabeth, who watches tearfully as her husband struggles to carry out his task while people in the audience manifest clear signs of disappointment.
Nine years later, Prince Albert is frustrated and disillusioned after seeing various doctors who have failed to remediate the problem with his stammer. Following a bizarre medical treatment in which he attempts to read with a mouth full of marbles, he screams that there will be no more sessions. Duchess Elizabeth, however, has an iron resolve and determination to help her husband overcome his speech impediment. She therefore pays a visit to Lionel Logue (portrayed by Geoffrey Rush), an eccentric Australian speech therapist, to inquire whether he will take her husband on as a patient.
Although somewhat off-put by his informal manner and insistence that he must be on a first-name basis with all clients irrespective of social station, she decides, albeit hesitatingly, to bring Prince Albert for an interview with Logue.
Following the Duchess’ first meeting with Logue, the film provides an empathetic look into the lives of both families. Prince Albert is shown to be a loving father to his daughters Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, who enjoy listening to his bedtime stories in spite of his perpetual stammer.
Logue leads a humble existence with his wife Myrtle and three sons who are supportive of his work as well as his interest in being a thespian. They in fact encourage him to audition for a production of Richard III, although ultimately he does not get the role, presumably because he is an Australian rejected by the apparent cultural arrogance of the lofty British theater establishment. Upon learning of Duchess Elizabeth’s meeting with Logue, Prince Albert is initially reluctant but agrees to hold an interview with him.
During their first meeting, the divergent outlooks of Prince Albert and Logue come into conflict since the sovereign is chagrined at Logue’s insistence that they address each other informally as equals and that he is necessarily in the uncomfortable position of sharing personal details. Upon broaching the subject of his stammer, Prince Albert claims that he has always had it. Logue, in contradistinction, maintains that indeed no child is born with a stammer, to which Albert replies that he has been stammering since the age of four or five. Logue affirms his belief that the stammer can be overcome and convinces Prince Albert to read an excerpt from Hamlet while wearing a headset with gramophone music playing in the background. The prince reluctantly agrees but then abruptly leaves, believing the experiment to be a failure, but not before Logue gives him the record to take home.
Several months later, during Christmas, Prince Albert is shown in the company of his father King George V (portrayed by Michael Gambon), who lectures him on the importance of making broadcast speeches as a royal function. It is during this scene that the film captures the family pressure on Prince Albert as second-in-line to the throne: Due to his older brother David’s affair with twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson and the consequent neglect of his duty as heir, Prince Albert must assume more responsibilities as the prospective successor.
Furthermore, Europe is in the midst of political unrest due to the rise of Nazism and Stalinism, and therefore it is crucial for Prince Albert to overcome his stammer and deliver public speeches as a national leader in the event of war. However, his father’s approach is abrasive and overbearing, as George V impatiently badgers him to speak into the radio, shouting “Just try it!” and “Do it!” This only contributes further to Prince Albert’s anxiety when attempting to deliver a speech despite his most earnest attempts to do so.
That night, however, Prince Albert experiences a change of heart when he listens to the gramophone record of his session with Logue, discovering that he had in fact delivered a superb and articulate oration of Hamlet’s soliloquy. Therefore, he decides to work with Logue while insisting that their sessions will be “strictly business, no personal nonsense,” to which Logue replies that what the royal couple is asking will only address “the surface of the problem.” Taking input from Duchess Elizabeth about her husband’s “mechanical difficulties with his speech,” Logue outlines a series of methods, including the use of tongue twisters and strengthening Prince Albert’s diaphragm, and affirms that they will work together on a daily basis. Over the subsequent two years, Logue coaches Albert through a variety of unorthodox techniques in which the Duchess takes an active part, and he makes significant improvements in his public speaking.
Things take a turn for Prince Albert when his brother David (portrayed by Guy Pearce) accedes to the throne as Edward VIII and declares his intention to marry Wallis Simpson, which he is constitutionally prohibited from doing. Due to the government’s refusal to back Edward’s decision, Prince Albert is faced with the prospect of becoming king in the event of his brother’s abdication, which he dreads for a variety of reasons, including his stammer. Logue acts as a voice of encouragement, telling Bertie, “All I’m saying is you could be a great king. You needn’t be governed by fear.”
Although this causes a rift between Bertie and Logue because of the latter’s overstepping of boundaries, Edward’s abdication results in Bertie’s accession to the throne as King George VI, forcing him to realize that he needs Logue’s help after all.
Following their reconciliation, a critical moment for George VI occurs during the preparations for his coronation. Upon learning from his advisers that Logue is not a licensed doctor, the king becomes disheartened, lamenting that he will be remembered as “Mad King George the Stammerer.” Upon turning to see Logue sitting on St. Edward’s throne, George VI loses his temper and argues with Logue, who taunts Bertie for his reluctance to become king and asks why he should leave the chair. Bertie finally shouts “Because I have a voice!,” a profound statement which reflects the growth in his self-confidence since he first began working with Logue.
An impressed Logue rises from the chair and states:
“Yes, you do. You have such perseverance, Bertie. You’re the bravest man I know. You’d make a bloody good king.”
This statement leads George VI to finally accept Logue as his sole speech therapist, regardless of his lack of credentials. The ultimate test of the king’s leadership comes with the outbreak of World War II, when George VI is expected to deliver his first wartime address to the British Empire. When practicing the speech with Logue, he expresses his uncertainty about fulfilling his role and the burden that it carries, stating: “The nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them, but I can’t speak.” Nonetheless, with the encouragement of Logue, Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill, the king strides into the private broadcasting room to make the pivotal speech that will determine his strength as a monarch in a time of international crisis.
The King’s Speech is a superbly crafted biographical production, featuring brilliant performances by Firth, Bonham-Carter, and Rush. While the film takes some creative liberties with historical accuracy – George VI made substantial improvement upon his speech over the years but never completely lost his stammer – it conveys a profound message of personal growth and empowerment.
In the decades since George VI’s reign, there have been marked advances in speech therapy, enabling individuals to significantly improve upon their speech impediments so that they may speak more efficaciously. This has proven beneficial for a wide variety of people, including some individuals on the autism spectrum. Viewers may thus find this film inspirational and instructive from the vantage point of how speech therapy was a much more primitive art during the early 20th century, when people did not realize that factors such as anxiety and nervousness could be the sources of speech impediments.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I’m now working on a secondary Master’s in Library Science. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.