The King’s Speech won the Oscar for best picture in 2013. I’m not surprised anymore. Several weeks ago, I got a DVD with a full commentary track and I have been living inside this story ever since then. The intricate internal structure of the film makes it seem to more like a poem than like a simple narrative. I’d like to write about that some day, but not today. For today, I want to start with the line that brought everything together for me. It was, “That ought to ring a few bells with you, Bertie.”
Speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) started learning about speech defects under very trying circumstances. Here’s the way Logue, an Australian, describes it to his patient, King George VI (Colin Firth).
When the Great War came, a lot of our soldiers were returning from the front, a lot of them shell-shocked, unable to speak…I did muscle therapy, exercises, relaxation, but I knew I had to go deeper. Those poor young bastards had cried out in fear and no one was listening to them. My job was to give them faith in their own voice and let them know that a friend was listening.
And then he says, “That ought to ring a few bells with you, Bertie.”
When this man first came to see Logue, he was not King George; he was the Duke of York. He was a member of the royal family and he wanted to be “a royal” more than he wanted anything. He wanted it more than he wanted to be able to speak without a stammer.
But then things happened.
His father, King George V died. His older brother became King Edward VIII, then abdicated so he could marry Wallis Simpson. Mrs. Simpson had been divorced twice and Edward, being the king was head of the Church of England, so he could not marry her and continue as king. The crown then passed to his brother Albert, whom the family called “Bertie.” Now he was a king and he absolutely had to speak. At that point, the tug of war between being a member of the royal family, on the one hand, and allowing Logue real access to the person he was, began. And that is what the movie is about.
The transition to what might be called “radical therapy” was simple enough for the shell-shocked troops. Getting the future king to agree to it was another matter. “As far as I see it, the Duchess (Helena Bonham Carter) informs Logue, “my husband has mechanical difficulties with his speech. Maybe just deal with that.”
Logue knows from his postwar experience that isn’t going to work. “I did muscle therapy, exercises, relaxation,…” That didn’t help the soldiers. Logue concluded, “…I knew I had to go deeper.” But, of course, you can’t go deeper if your patient is not willing to go deeper and as the Duke of York, he was not willing. “Strictly business,” says the Duke. “None of that personal nonsense.”
But “that personal nonsense” is just where the problem lay. Logue’s patients from the Great War “had cried out in fear and no one was listening to them.” The Duke, “Bertie” eventually, had never cried out. He did, however, begin to stammer. Slowly, over the course of the relationship, we learn some important things about Bertie. He was naturally left handed. He was punished for it and now he is right handed—and, of course, a stammerer. He was also knock-kneed and wore corrective braces night and day. “Must have been painful,” says Logue. “Bloody agony,” replies Bertie. And his nanny abused him, both by making him cry at what Bertie refers to as “the daily viewing,” (the time of day he and his brother were presented to parents) and then withholding food from him. Stomach problems ensued over the next three years. His brother, David, ridiculed him for his stammering. Their father approved of the ridicule and told Bertie to get over it. And he did get over the ridicule, to a certain extent, but he stammered.
Logue does for Bertie what he did for the returning soldiers: muscle therapy, exercises, relaxation. It doesn’t work. Bertie is discouraged that it didn’t work, but it’s still tolerable because his brother David is now king and it looks to Bertie like he has dodged the bullet. Then his brother forfeits the crown and all the dodging Bertie can do will no longer avoid that bullet. He is now the king.
He returns to Logue. He is desperate now. “Being a member of the royal family” isn’t that much of a consolation if you actually are the king and you have to give a speech. Logue has been very strict with Bertie. “My castle, my rules.”
To the Duchess, he said, “I can cure your husband, but for my method to work, I need trust and total equality, here in the safety of my consultation room. No exceptions.” And he stayed with that. The hauteur of the royal family didn’t daunt him in the least.
And later, he and Bertie have this exchange.
Lionel: What will I call you?
Bertie: “Your Royal Highness”…then, it’s “Sir” after that.
Lionel: A little stuffy for in here. I prefer names. How about “Bertie?”
Bertie: (deeply offended) Only my family calls me that.
Lionel: Perfect. In here, it’s better if we were equals.
Now, at last, all that drawing of clear boundaries pays off. When the king comes back, finally ready to work with Lionel, the relationship is there for him to return to. They seal the deal with a glass or so of whiskey. The first glass goes down pretty fast and Lionel offers to top off Bertie’s drink. Bertie thanks him without thinking about what he is saying. Lionel responds, also without thinking what he is saying, but the words he chooses so casually hang in the air. Instead of “You’re welcome,” which is what he meant, he said, “What are friends for?” Bertie’s response is heartbreaking. He says, “I wouldn’t know.”
Of course he wouldn’t know. He’s never had a friend; how could he know? But it turns out that if he doesn’t have a friend, he can’t give a speech and Hitler has invaded Poland and Great Britain has declared that a state of war exists between Germany and Great Britain and the king now has to give a speech. And it has to be a speech that clarifies the stakes for his nation and that rallies them to support the Parliament’s action. It has to be the best speech he has ever given in his life.
Finally, it is just the three of them: just the king, the therapist, and, between them, the microphone. Logue looks through the microphone grill and says, “Forget everything else and just say it to me…as a friend.” And he does. It is, in fact, the best speech he has ever given in his life.
It’s an amazing story. We think, when we first hear Logue say it, that he is asking for too much: Logue says, “I can cure your husband, but for my method to work, I need trust and total equality, here in the safety of my consultation room. No exceptions.” By the end, we see that nothing less than that would have worked. You don’t say, “Say it to me as a friend,” if you are not a friend. And you would not have become a friend if you had not demanded “trust and total equality” and if you had not violated the Duke’s demand that there be, “None of that personal nonsense.”
That personal nonsense saved George’s kingship and he and Logue were friends as long as they lived.
The personal designations for members of the royal family are just a little intricate. “The King’s” name is “Albert Frederick Arthur George” of the house of Windsor. The “Albert” is the reason the family called him Bertie. He is also the Duke of York. His older brother’s personal name was Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, of the house of Windsor. David was Duke of Kent before his accession to the throne. As king, he was Edward VIII.
 The etymological relationship between superficial and radical has delighted me for years. You can see the Latin form of “face” there, so superficial could be read “on its face.” Radical comes from the Latin word for “root,” (both radical and radish derive from the Latin radix, “root.” So when Logue says he is being asked to deal only with the surface of the problem and that he knows he will “have to go deeper” (to the root of the problem),he is laying the meaning of superficial and the meaning of radical on the table together.
 They come back to that line as they are setting up for the coronation. Bertie asks that Logue be seated in the royal box. The Archbishop protests that the royal box is for family only and Bertie responds, “That’s why it’s appropriate.”