FilmSlashTV: The King’s Stutter

Feb. 3, 2011 | 1 Comment

Colin Firth portrays King George VI in "The King's Speech." The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best film, Tuesday, January 25, 2011. The Oscars will be presented Feb. 27 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. —AP Photo/The Weinstein Company, Laurie Sparham

At the campus newspaper I worked at while in college, we had an editorial columnist who was, hands down, one of the most brilliant writers I’ve ever read. His stuff was pithy, direct, humorous without being snarky, compact, insightful — everything that makes the English language a pleasure.

He was also something of a mystery man. He’d come in, leave his column and quickly duck out, without saying a word. I eventually found out why. He had a vocal stutter that was painful, to the point where you couldn’t help but try and finish his sentences for him, which was embarrassing all-around.

I won’t give his name, but I’m happy to report he’s still in the game, a contributing editor for a major business weekly.

I thought of him often while watching “The King’s Speech,” a historical biopic starring Colin Firth as King George VI, with Helena Bonham Carter as wife Elizabeth (who most of us remember as the Queen Mum). Before suddenly having the kingship thrust upon him when older brother King Edward VIII abdicated the throne to run off with American divorcee Wallis Simpson, Prince Albert — known as “Bertie” — was thought of as the dull, slower, royal brother, a charisma drain, primarily because he rarely spoke in public. The reason, of course, is that he stuttered. In popular culture, which movies reflect, stuttering is shorthand for a person who is stupid or brain-damaged, a human being who is less than whole.

Bertie’s problem was that, as king, he could not hide. His only mission was to be the voice of the British empire, an impossible situation exacerbated by the coming of war, along with the invention of radio broadcasting. He had to speak. And he could not.

The arc of the film deals with Bertie’s relationship with unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue, who developed his speech-impairment theories treating shell-shocked veterans of the Great War. Since that time, doctors have become convinced that stuttering is likely a genetic or neurological kind of vocal short-circuit, and not a psychological problem. It seems that Logue’s greatest contribution was simply to become Bertie’s friend and cheerleader, helping the lonely king get through the wartime speeches. Whatever, it worked.

“The King’s Speech” is such a smoothly made, consistent and entertaining film that it is easy to overlook the clever and disarming way the screenplay gets us on Bertie’s side. In one scene, Bertie is fascinated by Logue’s son’s model airplanes, and comments sadly that he was never allowed to build models because his father insisted he collect stamps, the proper royal hobby. He putters a bit with the toy airplane, slumped in a chair, and yet enjoys the moment. A scene or two later, of course, older brother Edward lands a real airplane and leaps out, cocksure and dashing as hell.

Most movies are big on ginning up sympathy for their characters, getting us to feel happy or sad for them. But it is a rare movie indeed that successfully uses empathy rather than sympathy. We feel what the character feels, instead of feeling for them. In “The King’s Speech,” that’s partly because Firth’s performance is brilliant at suggesting Bertie’s inner struggle and private shame, and also because, frankly, most of us are terrified of speaking in public. We overcome it, but we have neither the king’s speech impediment nor his crushing responsibility.

“The King’s Speech” is a rare profile in courage, and of the bravest kind — that which must be endured in private.

  • Anonymous

    Good review. This film is very well directed in that the reactions of others to King George’s speaking is shown. You are right that the movie uses “empathy rather than sympathy.” Hopefully, people who have teased a stutterer will watch this film and change their attitude toward us. Those people who have learned the tips for speaking with someone who stutters that the Stuttering Foundation has published are the ones who are the smart ones as they learn how to converse with us and learn that we really do have something to say, can be great conversationalists, are hard workers, and are really worth the time.