The King’s Speech: A Talking Cure for the Stiff Upper Lip


In this blog, Annemone Ligensa reviews The King's Speech from a psychological and historical perspecive.

In 1865, in an American newspaper, the English journalist George Augustus Sala wrote about his countrymen:

“Some of us lisp, and some of us drawl, and some of us stutter, and many of us hem and haw, and a great many of us clap on H’s where there should be none, and take away H’s where they should be left. We are always speaking, and yet we speak badly.”

Arguably, the British take great pride in the beauty of their language, especially spoken language. Public speaking is the very fabric on which the nation is built. Hence, politics and performance have a symbiotic relationship. This was not something modern media invented: It goes back as far as Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare. At least two Englishmen could not afford to speak badly: the monarch and his fool. Today, the Empire is no more, but the one thing that still distinguishes an Englishman from global Americanization is his speech. Stripped of his accent, television viewers never guess that Dr Gregory House was once Bertie Wooster.

This brings us to another Bertie, the one who later became George VI, and his wise fool, Lionel Logue-an Australian Henry Higgins-something of a contradiction in terms for another George, Bernie Shaw. Rather, it brings us to the poor players that play their shadows on the screen, Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. To put the thespian cart before the horse, the filmmakers’ achievement is not the treatment of their subject matter, but the creation of a film that is such a hit, both with critics and the audience at large. Many of the historical inaccuracies of this film have already been painstakingly nitpicked, some of the psychological ones too, but nonetheless most viewers were enthralled by the film.

The real story goes something like this. Albert, the second son of King George V, spoke with a stammer. He sought help and found it in Lionel Logue, an elocution teacher. When his older brother Edward VIII abdicated to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson in 1936, Albert ascended to the throne as George VI. Together with his wife Elizabeth (later affectionately known as Queen Mum), he led the nation through World War II.

Geoffrey Rush has thanked the British royals for creating a “massive historical soap opera”. Indeed, dramatizations of the period have focused more often on the sensational story of Edward and Wallis’s public romance rather than on Bertie and Lionel’s discrete Pygmalion bromance. For added effect, the filmmakers obviously learned from the best: Sigmund Freud. Even though Freud famously snubbed Hollywood, he was a master storyteller with a propensity for the melodramatic deus ex machina ending, casting himself in the role of the deus, of course. Whereas Freud tended to exaggerate the effectiveness of his treatment, the filmmakers exaggerate the severity of the affliction. Both Freud and the film, whether knowingly or not, misrepresent the cause, as well as the cure.

The current view on stuttering that continues into adulthood (many children have a temporary phase of stuttering) is that it is a neurological disorder with a genetic component, except for those cases that are the consequence of injury. Anxiety may worsen stuttering (e.g. in the situation of public speaking), and stutterers often have feelings of low self-esteem due to social stigmatization, but this is not the primary cause. The subtle difference between correlations and causes is often lost in popular psychology.

By contrast, the film piles on common beliefs that have found little or no support in research (to the point that the affliction seems over-determined), and it clearly favors psychoanalytic theories as the final explanation. Furthermore, whether intentionally or not, the facts known from biographies are distorted to fit this view. Firstly, the film makes Albert’s stuttering appear far worse than it was; it only occurred in public speaking, not in private conversation. If the subtle Oxford stammer endears a snob to the average person, then the filmic portrayal of Albert’s stutter seems bent on melting even Oliver Cromwell’s heart. Secondly, it is true that Albert was a sensitive child who was subjected to the cruelties of contemporary pedagogy (such as being left with nannies, having to learn to use the right hand instead of the left, correction of knock knees with splints etc.), but these were common in upper class families at the time. Whatever physical and psychological harm they caused, it was not necessarily stuttering. Thirdly, certainly even a royal prince was not spared painful ridicule of his affliction, perhaps even from family.

The film makes Albert’s father and brother appear as beastly bullies. But in actual fact, Albert and Edward had a friendly relationship, and George disapproved of Edward’s libertinism much more than he was embarrassed about Albert’s shortcomings, even wishing Albert and not Edward would succeed him on the throne. These changes align all too neatly with Freudian ideas that stuttering is connected with a fear of paternal authority originating in the anal phase. References to “anality” abound in the film: Lionel’s first appearance is accompanied by the sound of a flushing toilet, and as one of the dramatic center pieces, Albert shouts expletives, especially of the fecal variety, during a therapy session. This is portrayed as an act of liberation from familial and cultural repression and hence literally as regaining his freedom of speech.

These pseudo-explanations are obviously not merely regarded as contemporary misconceptions, because they are directly connected with the actual therapeutic progress. Despite his interest in shell shock, one that Freud happens to have shared, Logue seems to have employed physical techniques rather than psychological ones. In contemporary newspaper reports, he even stressed that his royal patient’s affliction was physical rather than psychological. This might be regarded as motivated by the intent to dispel any doubts about sanity or intelligence, but there is also the fact to consider that Albert’s progress was much more rapid than the usual duration of psychoanalysis, another fact that the film misrepresents, even though it does depict techniques such as breathing exercises, etc. Incidentally, the film claims that the therapy was kept secret, perhaps to emphasize the general atmosphere of repression.

The film delivers the coup de grce not only to its own credibility, but probably contrary to its intention also to the psychoanalytic explanations it expounds, in a scene of a therapy session that is portrayed as the pivotal one. With great emotion, stammering so badly as to be almost unable to speak at all, even though what he relates took place before his conscious recollection so that he could only have heard it from others, Albert tells Lionel that as an infant, he had a nanny who pinched him, so that he would cry when presented to his parents, and afterwards she refused to breastfeed him, which caused his stomach problems, and, it is implied, also his stuttering. That bad breastfeeding causes stuttering is another myth that long predates psychoanalysis. It is true that Albert had chronic stomach problems. The story about the nanny is also true – but it was Edward and not Albert that was the target of her sadistic game. One cannot help but wonder if the filmmakers, among them screenwriter David Seidler, who suffers from stuttering himself, unknowingly misrepresent such facts due to an overzealous devotion to psychoanalysis, or whether they knowingly distort them to tap into the appeal of the “talking cure”, which Hollywood has done as much to promote as Freud.

But it doesn’t end there. The film goes on to connect this personal story with public, political events. As many reviewers have pointed out, Winston Churchill supported Edward and not Albert to the last, and simply out of personal sympathy, not due to differences in political views. Edward’s flirtation with fascism may have been more of a fetishistic sort (probably stuff for a much more sensational psychoanalytic “case study”), but Albert was just as supportive of appeasement. In a notorious gesture, he invited Neville Chamberlain for a public appearance on the royal balcony immediately after his return from the Munich conference in 1938, without the parliament’s prior approval. By contrast, the film makes Albert appear fully aware of the danger and this even part of his motivation to overcome his problems. In reality, he had managed his stutter relatively well many years before the abdication crisis. Hence the personal struggle is aligned with the greater good, and both triumph together, in the fashion of old-fashioned melodrama. It is a fictionalization of reality that makes it all look much too neat. Certainly, that is precisely the reason for its appeal.

Nevertheless, what I still enjoyed and enthusiastically applaud is the most British contribution to this very American film, and that is the acting. British acting is still the finest in the world, and the cast includes several fine actors. The fact that stuttering cannot be learned by empathizing with its causes and consequences, but only like a foreign language, and that Firth does it so convincingly, is a tribute to “outside in” approaches rather than “inside out” approaches (such as “The Method”). Hence, the acting escapes or transcends the excessive psychologization of the narrative, and celebrates the beauty and the power of bodies and speech – flaws and all. This is extremely enjoyable and moving and would have been more than enough for me. In the long run, this might also have done activism against the stigmatization of stuttering a better service than the film’s factual distortions. Alas, in the last instance, the play’s the thing to capture the conscience of the audience.

All too often, the filmmakers’ expectations extend no further than the box office dollar on opening weekends. Some films have a more lasting appeal though, and if the prizes lavished on it are any indication, this seems to be one of them. But despite the references to Shakespeare, it is at best comparable to a fairy tale (in particular, THE LITTLE PRINCE comes to mind). Significantly, Seidler’s previous efforts have been children’s stories. If only he had left the “adult” concerns out of this one.

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