Talking Pictures in Review: The King’s Speech

With last Friday’s Talking Pictures presentation of The King’s Speech having come and gone, I thought I’d recap some of the thoughts I mentioned in the post-viewing discussion.

First, a few interesting facts I ran across while reading about the film online:

1. David Seidler, who wrote the screenplay, suffered from a significant stammer as a young boy during World War II. He came to view King George VI as a hero when he heard him fight through his own stammer during radio broadcasts.

2. Seidler wrote the royal family asking permission to tell the king’s story. The Queen Mother wrote back affirmatively with one condition. Citing the still painful memory of the events, she asked him not to do it during their lifetime.

3. Some of the movie’s best lines are taken directly from Lionel Logue’s diary, which contained accounts of actual conversations between him and the king. One example that occurs after the climactic speech: Lionel tells the king, “You still stammered on the ‘W.’” Bertie (King George) replies: “I had to throw in a few so they knew it was me.”

4. The filmmakers uncovered the treasure trove of Lionel’s diary approximately nine weeks before shooting began.

As for engaging with the film itself:

1. The King’s Speech boasts one of the finest displays of acting that I can remember. Colin Firth’s rendering of the king was quite justifiably recognized with an Academy Award. In my judgment, Geoffry Rush’s Lionel Logue was no less outstanding. Look no further than the range of his expression—alternately effusive and subtle—as he “conducts” the king’s radio broadcast. Other excellent supporting performances abound.

2. The film holds a mirror to reality in several important respects, including its portrayal of Bertie. And here I’m not referring to its historical accuracy, on which I wouldn’t be anything close to an authority. Rather, Bertie’s character and the circumstances of his life provide eloquent testimony that everyone is a broken person living in a broken world.

Bertie is a member of the royal family and eventually becomes king. As such, much about his life suggests insulation and carefully manicured privilege. But a look behind the curtain reveals something else. A child abused by a nanny who favored his brother. A boy who endured corrective steps for the “undesirable” traits of being left-handed and having knock knees. A son with an overbearing father and emotionally cold mother. A brother whose siblings mocked his impediment. A man without deep friendships and afraid of something most people do without so much as a thought.

Upon this man is thrust a responsibility he feels wholly inadequate to undertake. It comes to include inspiring a nation during one of its gravest hours, of providing, through the very medium that terrifies him, a moral and emotional counterbalance to a man willing to hurl the world into another terrible war.

Since our first parents fell in the garden, things have not been the way they’re supposed to be, and this movie is a great reminder of that essential fact.

3. The story constantly underscores the significance and power of speech. This is why we feel so uncomfortable when watching Bertie’s halting attempts at speaking early in the film—his inability is genuinely tragic. Likewise, we see the potency of speech, both for good and ill, on display in several other scenes: the haranguing Bertie endures from his father, his wife’s love and support, his brother’s mocking, the undeniably charismatic public displays of Hitler, Lionel’s clever and patient encouragement, and finally, the understated courage of Bertie’s own address.

Taking a step back, it should come as no surprise to us that this theme could provide the backbone to such an excellent movie. After all, fallen as we are, we still bear the image of a God whose word contains untold power and creativity. The King’s Speech illustrates the fact that we reflect him, however faintly, in that respect.

4. We also see the value and necessity of friendship in this film. In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to view it essentially as an exceptionally well-executed buddy movie. More specifically, it’s is the king’s relationship with Lionel, one that goes far beyond the mechanics of speech therapy, that serves as the catalyst for his improvement and spurs him to deeds that were previously unthinkable. Lionel and Bertie come to interact not so much as therapist and patient, but as friend to friend.

Here again, this resonates quite well with the biblical perspective. One can’t read the New Testament very long before being confronted with one of its many “one another” passages. We are not meant to walk alone.

5. Finally, I found it interesting that the film contains a series of contrasts: the family life Bertie was born into vs. the life he enjoyed with his own wife and children, David’s outward dash and irresponsibility vs. Bertie’s awkward faithfulness, royal pomp and privilege vs. common life and vibrancy, the moral vacuum masked by Hitler’s considerable public gifts vs. Bertie’s stammering courage in service of the right.

The overall effect of this is to celebrate a certain kind of character, one that manifests itself in self-forgetfulness, quiet courage, faithfulness, mutual dependence, and the like. Living as we do in a culture that lapses so easily into bombast, swagger, and spectacle, this film amounts to a welcome breath of fresh air.

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