Our fourth Shamedown, and this time we’re getting an extra helping of shame. Not for us, though. For the king. If anyone wants to see the origins of the Shamedown, please visit Cinema Shame. Past 2019 Shamedowns can be found here.
I learned a new word last week: Glossophobia. It’s said that seventy-five percent of the human race has it to some degree.
What is glossophobia? It’s the fear of public speaking. Yep, the idea of getting up in front of a group of people and spewing words fills many of us with anxiety and dread.
Now just imagine you’re the king of a tiny island nation during a world war. The Nazis are trying to beat down your door, and except for a few neutral allies, it’s between you and them. Your job is to speak to your countrypeople and reassure them. It’s the classic “Win one for the Gipper” speech, only with vastly higher stakes. As king, you’re expected to present a strong, confident front to your people and the world.
There are only two problems: You hate public speaking. You also have a painfully obvious stammer.
That was King George VI on September 3, 1939. Britain and Germany had just declared war on each other two days previously, and the British people needed to hear from their king. The buildup to this momentous occasion was portrayed in the 2010 Academy Award-winning film, The King’s Speech.
The film opens at a microphone in a radio studio. It’s 1925, and King George, (then Albert, the Duke of York, played by Colin Firth) stands around with his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and his entourage waiting to walk into the stadium, where he’s going to give the closing speech at the British Empire Exhibition. Everyone assures Albert he’ll be fine. Albert is petrified.
When he approaches the microphone, Albert’s vision blurs. He gets a few words out, then loses himself in a fit of stuttering. Everyone looks uncomfortable. Heads in top hats droop. Elizabeth is aghast though sympathetic. Albert’s sinking heart is visible all over his face.
Albert’s current speech therapist is no help. He stuffs so many marbles into Albert’s mouth to teach him ennunciation that it’s like a game of Chubby Bunnies. Albert wants to give up, and since his brother, David (Guy Pearce) is the heir to the throne, he thinks there aren’t too many speeches in his future anyway.
Elizabeth isn’t so sure, and she takes it upon herself to find Albert a new therapist. Under the pseudonym, Johnson, she makes an appointment with Australian speech therapist and frustrated Shakespearean actor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). She visits him in a shabby office building with a tiny elevator whose door doesn’t close very well.
Lionel is receptive to working with Albert, but it has to be on his terms. Albert must come to him, not the other way around. Mary is reluctant, but she brings Albert to Lionel’s office.
Getting Albert in the door is one thing, but securing his cooperation is quite another. It takes some coaxing from Lionel to get him talking, and even then it’s touch and go. Lionel tells Albert that as long as they’re working together, they’re equals, and Albert is “Bertie.”
Albert reluctantly consents to read Hamlet’s soliloquy aloud, while Lionel records him. He also blasts Mozart into Albert’s ears by way of distraction, and it works better than Albert knows. Still, Albert is extremely nervous and basically runs out of Lionel’s office.
King George V (Michael Gambon) reminds Albert that times have changed. It’s not enough anymore to look good in a crown; a king has to reach into people’s homes and ingratiate himself to them. What’s more, David’s chances of holding the throne are dissipating, as a man married to a divorcee can’t be received at court.
George soon dies, and Albert’s brother takes the throne as Edward VIII. Albert, spurred by grief, goes back to Lionel and asks for help.
Lionel puts Albert through his paces. He needs to relax his jaw, strengthen his tongue, and use his diaphragm. Lionel and Elizabeth take turns sitting on Albert’s tummy to build up his strength, and the three of them shout vowels at open windows, with Elizabeth holding a stopwatch.
Meanwhile, David’s kingship badly flounders. The Nazis are steadily taking over Europe, but David is more interested in partying with Mrs. Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), his mistress, who’s vulgar and disrespectful. When Albert confronts David about it, he stammers and then freezes. David acts like a major jerk before breezily going off to bring Mrs. Simpson more champagne.
At his next session with Lionel, Albert relates the incident, at which Lionel reminds him: He doesn’t stammer when he swears.
So Albert lets loose with the swear words, including F-bombs. A lot of F-bombs. If F-words were actual bombs, His Majesty could have flattened the Nazis in a day all by his lonesome.
Albert’s swearing should be his Helen-Keller-at-the-water-pump moment, but it’s not, and he’s scared to death about it. He quits the sessions again. The back-and-forth weighs heavily on Lionel, who knows how great Albert can be. Albert can run, but he can’t hide, and it’s not really a spoiler to say that history shows where he ended up. Here’s the real Albert giving the fateful speech on September third:
Naturally, The King’s Speech has some inaccuracies. Lionel’s methods were unorthodox, but having His Majesty turn the air blue with cuss words wasn’t one of them. He certainly never called Albert “Bertie,” although he and the king remained lifelong friends.
Instead of profanity, Lionel had the king repeat tongue twisters and rambling sentences. He also had Albert strengthen his diaphragm. Albert didn’t run away from Lionel when things got tough; in fact, he thrived. According to Elizabeth II biographer, Carolly Erickson, Lionel called Albert “the pluckiest and most determined patient I have ever had.”
Still, the film needed conflict, and Albert needed a journey to take. I have to say, I totally got this movie. Granted, the profanity isn’t really necessary, but I was rooting for Albert so much I didn’t care about the cussing scene as much as I probably could have.
Other than the air turning blue, The King’s Speech hits all the right spots. The pacing is awesome. The flow and ebb work. In the scene where Albert meets his cabinet for the first time, it seems to be the setup for an uncomfortable scene, and for several strained seconds it is. Then, right when things seem at their most awkward, a Corgi barks. That’s how the movie rolls; any tension is kept bearable by strategically placed, understated comedy.
The King’s Speech further heightens the tension by framing the actors and scene compositions in an offset manner. There’s a lot of empty space in many of Albert’s scenes, and all it does is make him look more uncomfortable than he already is. Some have complained this makes the film look really ugly, but in my opinion, it’s shorthand for the incredible stress everyone was under at that time in history.
It’s not as if Colin Firth needs much help, though–his acting in the film is letter-perfect, and he’s supported by a Who’s Who of durable British actors. In particular, seeing Firth and Geoffrey Rush play off each other in their many scenes is a satisfying, heady experience, as the energy between the two is utter fun. The King’s Speech deserved every award it got, and I highly recommend it. Some may want to hit the volume button when Rush says the phrase, “swear words,” but it’s a brief scene and doesn’t detract much from the overall experience.
Okeydokey, thanks for reading, all...
The King’s Speech is available on multi-format Blu-ray from Amazon.
Erickson, Carolly. Lillibet: An Intimate Portrait of Elizabeth II. London: Macmillan Publishers, 2005.