If you go watch The King’s Speech, it will most likely move you in ways that, on reflection, will prompt the question “how did that happen?”. How can a story – of a guy’s stuttering and his speech coach trying to help – become that gripping? The advertising of the film and its reviews tell all that the film renders a time with effortless precision and that a story will unfold of the unmaking of one King of England and the making of another, utterly reluctant King. Even so, the emotional impact far exceeds what such period pieces deliver. Here I explore how this film delves into the depths of what it means to ‘have voice’, an issue that resonates today. This film got to me: and I noticed not just me.
The Film’s 4 MPs (Main Players)
To get a sense of the structure, and indeed cunning of this movie, look again at this revealing picture from the movie. What do you see?: the Microphone (so new and daunting then!), the Monarch (King George VI), a Man (a coach), and the first of several Manuscripts (in this scene, Shakespeare’s Hamlet). The film swirls around these four points, each move, opening up another aspect of ‘Voice’ – that flows and gets, by turn: frozen, fragmented, fouled, fooled, frenzied or fetishized. But finally, Voice flows forth with a force-of-feeling strong enough to frame the forebodings (in 1939) of an entire Empire. Listening to the original 1939 speech, available at the BBC archive of the actual King, all of a sudden each pause packs a punch: what would otherwise sound like pretentious pauses and a lisp, now sound like a real struggle with the monarch trying to rally all to a much bigger struggle.
While the vast majority of the reviews rave about the film’s many qualities, few dwell on the intensity of reactions. Here’s one revealing example from the Financial Times (5/1/2011):
Looking at stills of The King’s Speech before seeing it, I feared it might be the first turkey to survive Christmas …. All these costumes. All this pomp searching for some circumstance. By the film’s end I was in tears: a pathetic critic-thing whimpering in the half-dark, knocked into resistlessness by the power of storytelling.
The Lures of The King’s Speech
You can settle into a viewing of this film from a number of angles: as a ‘period piece’ with sumptuous clothes and decor that take you back to a finer time: “Ah what a time that was…“; or a family drama – between brothers which connect with family types you may remember: “The talkative cad who chatters endlessly saying nothing, versus the brooding stiff with so much to say yet no clears words express…..” or the family dynamics between father and sons may equally remind you of family dysfunction: “That father, wise to the world, yet so frozen to his family…” ; or maybe the film can uplift you as a ‘true story’ of heroism – of difficulties and disabilities courageously confronted: “Wow, such ferocious determination and final overcoming…..“; or as war film, whereby remnant nationalism (akin to Last Night at the Proms) bestir you: within the microcosm of his Majesty’s household, cloistered mannerisms give way to the marshaling of meanings broadcast across the British Empire to mobilize all – to confront the next Great Conflagration: “From pomp to pucker!”
Films with multiple angles and multiple meanings risk becoming a pastiche of plots or a labyrinth of hidden messages or a collage of cliches. The King’s Speech creates and then controls multiple facades through a deeper, more compelling, logic.
Harvesting the audience’s imagination
How can this film be a ‘period piece’ supposedly giving us a ‘feel for the times’ when most of the film takes place in a basement apartment with peeling wallpaper? The scenes of sumptuousness radiate so alluringly precisely because they provide respite, and contrast to, that basement apartment and the ordeal of re-learning it contains. Similarly, the family drama weaves its way through the film, yet the film gives just enough cues to elicit projections of what we suspect (about Edward with his fumbling with things – phones, cigarette, champagne bottles and glasses); the father’s sternness alluded to by his outbursts about “Come on man, just get it out!” when the other son (Prince Albert, ‘Bertie’) stammers and stutters and stumbles on his consonants and sinks in his vowels. But the film has already got us rooting for the Bertie because we figure: surely we can partly blame the father. The sheer anguish of listening to a pause with no end, makes our stomach churn and we almost want to cheer when some improvement happens (lest we be put through the pain of yet another pause!). But the King never completely overcomes the stuttering – he just learns to manage it. The whole war angle – with Churchill’s appearances and film clip of Hitler – makes us connect what we see to the many narratives we know so well: of the forthcoming WW2, the Battle of Britain and the like. While war looms, few big signs of its arrival appear in this film (one siren plus one scene of sandbags).
Indeed the first secret of this film lies in how it actives and then harvests our own memories and projections that fill out details. The film, because of it absence of ‘special effects’, densely detailed scenes leaves much to the imagination.
The film has outsourced its ‘effects’ to the viewers’ imaginations. Ironically, the film is primarily about absences, eagerly filled by audiences keen to witness and yet wipe away dark secrets of their own post-Empire condition. Unleashing imaginations require strong structures to pin down the resulting associations. The above picture shows the four key pins that peg down the ballooning images this film conjures. The are the four key actors of the film.
The first piece that holds all this together appears in breath-taking wonder in the very first scene. Reviewers mention the first scene of Prince Albert Bertie, at a race course, trying pathetically to give a public talk that flounders in painfully witnessed stutters and silences. But prior to this scene, a far more significant scene sets the stage so that the full measure of the disaster can be understood: a BBC announcer, back at BBC headquarters and who will introduce the Speech, walks into a special room within which, on a desk, a massive bulbous structure (like a horizontally placed vase) sits in splendid isolation, namely The Microphone. It dwarfs the announcer! The announcer does all these preparations with relish and fanfare, to ‘ready himself’ to speak and then, with the finest of English diction, goes forth with his announcement: “This is the BBC, Good Evening ….. “ you can feel his words penetrate this microphone, creating ricocheting vibrations within the hidden space of the microphone, eventually to bounce forth, as radio signals, across the Empire. The Empire finds its most iconic expression in neat arrays of radio transmitters each with a country’s name on it. For this announcer, the microphone offers a portal to the world. For Prince Albert ready to make his special speech alas, the microphone appears as a bottomless pit beckoning for words he just cannot yet muster! The film pivots on the microphone.
With amazing acting finesse, Colin Firth, playing “Bertie” (Prince Albert), palpably captures the sense of compressed and compacted meanings – busting to be released, but he just cannot do it. He is not yet king. He presumes he will not ever be king – his flash and brash brother will become king. Even now, their farther, the King, points out in a telling aside, that the monarchy has been reduced, thanks to The Microphone, to the most demeaning of profession: acting! Monarchs have to ‘connect’ with the feelings of The Many. The disdain and resignation of the King makes it all the more futile: Prince Albert must speak into the microphone, till he dies – just for duty (forget delight!). Yet from this high office and particularly with the looming clouds of war, only the Truth ought to be spoken from such high office. Prince Albert knows this and chokes.
Prince Albert has a wife. The Microphone demands ease, quick wit and flow. Prince Albert has to get help. A hilarious scene occurs where an old-guard speech therapist has Prince Albert try to talk with marbles in his mouth, a remedy recommended in ancient Greek texts. Albert’s wife ponders on whether it even worked then. She seeks out more practical solutions. She finds a therapist (Lionel), played by Geoffrey Rush: an Australian in London getting school kids to overcome stuttering. Lionel plays mascot for the common man, nicely conveyed by his Australian, no nonsense, laconic ways. Impressed, Prince Albert’s wife convinces her husband give it a go with this Australian therapist. Funny scenes unfold as English reserve, restraint, status and inner fury meets witty, unrestrained, role based flair at getting Prince Albert to engage – as a human, not a stuffy incumbent of some high office. Amazingly, it works: for a rare moment (captured in the above picture), Lionel uses Mozart (played loudly in the headphones) to distract Albert’s searching (and searing) self-monitoring and he can read flawlessly from the manuscrpt: “To Be or Not to Be, that is the question” (from Hamlet). Nice touch!
Where-ever microphone appears, so too does a manuscript. A sub-theme to the film (which primarily concerns Voice) relates to ‘reading’. A ‘talk’ does not just get spoken, it gets written first, rehearsed, rephrased, etc and then finally read. But the epic struggle in this film actually lies less in the words spoken than in the pauses that have to punctuate the delivery. Each pause can collapse into an abyss of silence. So Lionel and the King get the knack of filling the pauses with lashings of all ‘anti-scripted’ speaking: swear words, song, arm waving, even dance! For normal speakers, reading a sentence just happens: the Full Stop, at the end of a sentence, but a tiny reminder to take a breath. But for Albert and anyone who feels the power of words, that full-stop looms ever larger: like the plug in the bath that once threatened to engulf the baby in it. The film reveals a glimpse of the final speech notes and they are full of annotations – a support to counter the punctures that punctuation can deliver! But the final accomplishment for Lionel lies in him becoming a human embodiment of punctuation: He silently mouths the punctuation.
Just as the film Amadeus managed to make Mozart’s music almost a character in the movie, so too in this movie, voice becomes a character. Voice here means more than sounds. It means a smooth flow of sounds that signify something significant. Not only does Prince Albert find a voice, the whole Empire finds a voice. A voice that resonates with the both the pain of having to say what has to be said and also saying it, such a voice that ‘moves’.
Today, the sound-bite, gives us an endless flow of little nuggets and asides that fills a gap, like a piece of candy gives comfort. Yet no nourishment happens. Voice takes up time and makes time to engage. Firth does an excellent job showing this. And Rush reveals himself as the mid-wife of Voice: he shows a solitary brooding can never make for a speech (even if Shakespeare indulges this myth at times). In the end, the King’s Speech is less about a King and more about the many times we find people waiting for someone to say something about an issue and we balk and barricade ourselves in the quiet but false knowledge that someone else can say what has to be said. The courage talked about both in the film and about the film, covers as much the confrontation with a disability as it does a confrontation with willfully not speaking out.
Even more relevant, in an internet age, where a good idea might replicate and bounce across a lot of places, the value of a genuine voice becomes all the more compelling. In this age, the ‘microphone’ or indeed the camera no longer inhibits or causes the fear, instead the dispersed swarms of search engine ‘bots’ that capture all and store it forever haunts writers.