A PAGE WITH A VIEW | Cinema Column – “The King’s Speech”

Paola Suardi

Directed by Tom Hooper

With Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter and Guy Pearce

Drama, 2018, 105’’

In a nutshell, this film tells the story of how King George VI of England – who unexpectedly ascended the throne after his father’s death and, above all, his brother’s abdication – dealt with a speech impediment: severe dysfluency, or stuttering. The narrative journey of the movie ends with the king’s speech to the nation when England declares war on Nazi Germany. The screenplay is excellent, as are the directing, photography and acting. The movie won four Oscars. The king’s story is an opportunity to say many things. There is a reflection on the public and private sides of those who are in power, on the importance of mass media for them, on the change introduced by “new media”, such as the radio (or the newsreels that conveyed Hitler’s angry rhetoric), on the speech therapist’s unconventional professional path, on the friendship between a royal and a commoner (and a commoner from the colonies to boot!), on complicity in marriage, on loving the theatre and on Shakespeare… 

The King’s Speech tells the story of a man who, before winning the war against the Third Reich, had to win a battle against himself and his own limitations; or it can also be read as a parable of the ways in which a leader, or an aspiring leader, can overcome his initial limitations. Severino Salvemini, Professor of Business Organisation at Bocconi University, has observed, “The story of the Duke of York (which is absolutely a true story that is well documented, Ed.), who in order to become King of England has to bridge a gap and demonstrate his ability to perform efficiently as required by the new role, is somewhat reminiscent of the process – described well by organisational theory – whereby a person who moves up in an organisation, leaving a lower level position for a higher one, often finds himself suffering, during that transition, from a skills gap. This skills gap creates a ‘role mismatch’ because the individual does not initially have all the skills to fill the position effectively. It is time and practice on the job that allow the individual to bridge the gap. Alternatively, there has to be training to equip the person with the skills they are lacking. This is precisely what happens to the duke who becomes King George VI and undergoes arduous training and must practice assiduously to attain the skills and competences necessary for a king to speak in public. This is underlined in the film by the speech therapist’s witty and biting quip when he tells him: ‘If you have a stutter, you’d better look for another job.’ 

This is easier said than done, much like adequate and effective training. In the film we clearly see that his awareness of his own inadequacy generates in the character a deep despondency, alongside real panic attacks. Hooper’s direction and Colin Firth’s acting effectively portray his difficulties as he makes uncertain, repeated sounds or creates embarrassing silences. But the film’s strength lies in the lucidity with which it focuses on the speech therapist who is also a trainer, educator, consultant, and coach, as we would say today. It is the speech therapist – played masterfully by Geoffrey Rush – who with great professionalism, though he is also very irritating, creates the conditions in which the king can overcome his profound insecurity, which is at the root of his inability to speak publicly. By gently laying down ironclad rules, the therapist creates an equal relationship to win the trust needed to be admitted to the patient’s private sphere and psyche. At the same time, during the sessions he concentrates on the actual “mechanics” of speech: typical breathing and relaxation exercises and exercises to strengthen the phonatory muscles. There is a combination of psychological work and technique, the profound work of inner excavation and physiological training, which even includes gargling and swearing. ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’ and the words flow, because when you’re angry inhibitions are overcome. 

Thus the king resolves his relationship with the Word and frees himself from his fear of communicating. This is a significant story, not only because it concerns an important institutional figure, but also because it takes place in the first half of the twentieth century, which would go on to be characterised by the “ubiquitous primacy of communication”.  And here we find the greatest mark that this movie leaves, underlined at the end by the “liturgy” of reading a written text on the radio and listening to it: the great respect for the Word, understood as the act of speaking in public, speech that is experienced as being ethical because of the responsibility to reach and be understood by a heterogeneous audience of millions. Public speaking that brings with it an awareness and gravitas that go far beyond the effort used to achieve, through technique, a skill.