I’ve just watched the movie ‘The King’s Speech’ and thoroughly enjoyed it. For me to enjoy a movie is in itself a rare and wonderful thing. I don’t as a rule watch movies and my taste is limited. I loved the original ‘Star Wars’ films and the LOTR films. And ‘Bambi’. So now, days later, I’ve begun to wonder why I enjoyed ‘The King’s Speech’ so much. And I think we, as writers, could learn from the answers.
In essence this is an exceedingly simple tale. The man who will be king has a speech impediment. When the story starts, he is a young prince whose stammer leads to public humiliation as his failure on the wireless is broadcast to millions. Then he meets a man who fixes him. In the end he delivers an important speech to the world and does so effectively.
This is a story set in the 1930’s, when the British Empire was still a powerful entity and when Adolf Hitler was a rising threat in Germany. George V was still on the throne, his oldest son, David (who would become Edward VIII) was next in line and Bertie, the stutterer, was the Duke of York. Then David has his fateful love affair with Wallis Simpson, almost bringing down the Monarchy, a stalemate finally ended when he abdicates. The movie includes cameo appearances from Winston Churchill, Alec Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, all pivotal players in the inevitable spiral into war in 1939. But all of this is just scenery, backdrops to the main play which is the relationship between two men who could hardly be more different. The prince, born into royalty and Lionel Logue, the self-taught Australian speech therapist who refuses to call his client anything but Bertie.
So much of this movie is simply conversations between two men as Lionel breaks down Bertie’s barriers to discover the reason why he stutters, revealing a tyrannical father, abuse by a nanny, over-expectations. All of this has resulted in feelings of total inadequacy, which Bertie must confront as the horrifying possibility of him having to be king edge toward probability.
There is conflict between Logue and Bertie, of course. But also between Bertie and his brother and his father. Bertie’s wife, Elizabeth, is unfailingly supportive and we are given a glimpse into the relationship between Bertie and his two daughters – one of whom is now Queen Elizabeth.
Why does this movie work? There are no gruesome deaths, no car chases, no violence of any sort. Nobody steals anything. The background facts are well known. There is no suspense, no horror; just a man with a speech impediment and a man who treats him.
The screenwriters have created conflict in a number of ways, the most important being the differences between the two men, one a Royal Prince, the other an Aussie larrikin. To start with we are shown Bertie’s excruciating first radio speech, then Bertie’s initial reluctance to play by Lionel’s rules in his home (‘my castle, my rules’). But the screen writers have, I suspect, bent the truth just a little to increase the tension. For instance, in the movie Bertie learns at his rehearsal for the coronation in Westminster Abbey that Lionel has no formal qualifications, that despite his Harley Street address, he is no doctor. I find that a little bit hard to believe, but it adds to the tension. In similar vein, there are several countdowns to Bertie having to make a speech and we’re along for the ride. In the end, when Bertie delivers his ‘we are at war with Germany’ speech, the audience inevitably remembers that first speech which he completely mangled. And so, indeed, does he. After a slow start, Bertie delivers. One of the great things about this movie is he is not miraculously cured. Lionel enables him to function, but he hasn’t waved a magic wand. So for writers, use conflict, contrive conflict even if it is conflict within an individual and you can have a gripping story.
Of course, the acting is just terrific. Colin Firth does a wonderful job of showing Bertie’s shyness, his lack of confidence and his desperate attempts to overcome these characteristics as a Royal Prince. I cannot imagine how hard it must be for an actor to convey a man with a stammer – for me it was absolutely convincing. And Geoffrey Rush is great as Lionel Logue.
One other little tip for us writers – the way detail was sprinkled in. The wonderful scene where a man leads a car containing the Duchess of York up Harley Street through a London fog, Bertie storming off through a park with a horseman riding the other way, glimpses of Lionel’s family – most especially his intelligent oldest son who drives the car to take his father to meet Bertie before the final speech. That boy would be caught up in the coming war. And the scenes of Bertie with his daughters, the dying king, David and Mrs Wallis.
Just a simple little movie about two blokes talking to each other. Wow.