Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The King's Stammer

Pity the ceremonial leader who chokes on his own words. The King's Speech gives us England in the run-up to World War II. King George V is ailing; his playboy son Edward is more interested in courting his American mistress than in preparing to rule. "Bertie," Duke of York, though dutiful and kind, has a speech impediment so severe he can hardly communicate with government officials, much less the common people whom the wireless has placed within reach of his voice. The people need a leader, and as fear and inadequacy constrict Bertie's throat, he can't lead, no matter how heroically he struggles.

Two masterful perfomrances lie at the heart of this drama. Colin Firth plays Bertie, also known as George VI, with such suffering, self-deprecation and despair that he's utterly convincing. Geoffrey Rush uses his mobile, lugubrious face to portray Lionel Logue, the failed actor and self-taught speech therapist who insists on befriending the prince in order to treat him.

The story builds a surprising amount of tension. Firth's character has lost hope of a cure: every visit to a doctor has become a torment of exposure to humiliation and defeat. Enter Lionel Logue, who insists on calling him "Bertie," who bets him a shilling he can read aloud, who lets him glue parts onto model airplanes in return for good effort. Bertie has been bullied and belittled by his father and brother, and despite his stranglehold on decorum, when he's pressed far enough, his resentment flares out against "Dr." Logue, the first commoner he has ever allowed to know him.

One of the funniest scenes of the movie occurs when Logue prods Bertie into producing a string of obscenities. Logue also has Bertie roll on the floor, sing his narrative, shout vowels out the window, and speak while waltzing, all in an effort to get him to let go, let the words flow, let his voice be heard.

This is no beautiful costume drama. Foggy London, a darkly-paneled basement office, stiff formal dress all seem to speak to the constraints that restrict the prince's speech. Even worse are the large public spaces, the Commonwealth Games or Westminster Abbey, where he'll have to expose his disability to public censure. Bertie is a man whose wisdom and humanity not only can't be displayed, they can't even fully develop until he starts to reclaim his voice.

As a writer, I can't help but see a metaphor for writer's block in the agonizing effort the king must put into speaking. Like Bertie, a writer who cannot write can retreat into domestic life and dutiful adherence to minor duties, remaining a bystander rather than a leader or even a commenter on our time. But imagine instead that we writers want to find our voices, to write as a way to develop compassion and wisdom in order to better serve the age. Then we have to take the risk of exposure and ridicule. We have to find tricks to make ourselves loosen up. We have to be willing to explore our past hurts, current character flaws, anger and fear. Sometimes our minds will shut tight, and the words won't come. Courage and persistence won't be enough to free them. At those times, we are lucky if we have cultivated within ourselves the patient, accepting optimist, the Lionel Logue who will accompany us on our journey to find our own words.

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