Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The King's Speech

The King's Speech is a movie about language - aristocratic language, democratic language, broken language and therapeutic language. And since the movie is set in Great Britain a place where class, as George Orwell observed, was branded on the tongue, it is invariably about the intimacies and shifts in class relations.

The future British King George VI has a speech problem - a stutter leaves him ill suited to lead the country as mass communications technology has dramatically expanded. The Nazi threat - the film takes place in the period leading up to World War II - calls for leadership skills to challenge Hitler - or at least enough verbal ability to help bolster the morale of the country. If public speaking creates paralyzing fear in many people, this Royal spends most of the film looking like he would rather face a German Panzer Division by himself than give a speech.

In order to raise himself to the leadership challenge George must first lower himself. With the help of his wife Elizabeth, the future "Queen Mother" as they say in Britain, they find unlicensed speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush). Logue operates outside of the circle of medical quacks who have been systematically and unsuccessfully applying their tortures.

While Logue is keen to push to the deeper levels of the King's psychological fear, apparently the product of an abusive upbringing, given the delicate social situation George and Elizabeth are content to stay focused on the "mechanics" of his stammer. In therapeutic language, Logue is admonished to operate "within the frame" of the clients experience. That frame is a rather limited one.

According to psychiatrist and communications theorist Paul Watzalawick, the best possible solution to seemingly intractable psychological problems is not to convince the person that their problems are illusory but to counter-intuitively move them in the direction of the greatest anxiety and therefore the strongest resistance. Logue does this by pushing George towards tasks that he believes he cannot successfully undertake. He is the perfect corner-man, massaging, cajoling and refining the tactical therapeutic attack.

Logue also adds a pinch of Freud to his approach by encouraging his client to express verbally whatever thoughts or emotions surface in his mind. There are some amusing scenes of the King spitting out expletives in a scatter-shot manner - a kind of vulgar free-association. George does not recline on Logue's couch but there is an inkling of Freud's belief that part of the methodological power of psychoanalysis derives from the "suspension of artfulness" in speech, the patient's freedom not to tell a story.

The writer Lionel Trilling suggested that it is possible at times to observe social morality in the process of revision. While watching The King's Speech I felt like I was watching the depiction of a "dominant class" confronting the evolving democratic ethos in Britain. Not only does Logue refer to the King as "Bertie," George's informal family name, he also insists that the King travel to Logue's office for their treatments. George, with aristocratic vulnerability, abides by Logue's rules in order to receive help. A dramatic shift in the social relations in Britain is contained in these subtle uses of language and the control of space.

At the beginning of the movie the dying King George V inquires of his son "Who will protect the country from Hitler and the proletarian abyss?" While he was undoubtedly referring to Stalin's Soviet Union as Hitler's left-wing bookend, he could just as well have been referring to the assertive British working-class and the fear of approaching political degeneration.

According to historian Gareth Stedman-Jones, there was a pervasive "slum-life" literature in Britain throughout the 19th and early 20th century that portrayed the lower working-class as mired in "slums," "dens," "swamps," "deeps," "wilds," and "abyss." These popular writings shaped middle and upper-class views of the lower classes while also stimulating an evangelical movement to civilize these "social inferiors."

Stedman-Jones also points out that during times of insecurity, fears for property were combined with a great emotive yearning to re-establish personal relations between the classes. When the King does manage to deliver a message via radio, several images are strung together of "regular" British citizens huddled around their radios in a British version of FDR's fireside chats. One axiom that can be applied to any movie is that if you are shown large numbers of people listening raptly to any leader and there is not a whiff of dissent, you know you are being conned.

The last scene of the movie shows King George VI waving to a massive crowd gathered dutifully outside Buckingham Palace as World War II commences. Logue stands in the background proudly watching him. The masses gathered outside were about to shape history. Hitler was defeated and in the parliamentary election of 1945 that followed the war British voters threw out of office one of the war's heroes, Winston Churchill. The Labour Party won almost 50% of the vote with a mandate to make Britain more democratic and egalitarian.

Extending the theme of the movie in a collective direction, attention was shifted from one man's affliction to the social and economic problems of the whole nation. The historian Tony Judt concludes that after the war there was a belief in Britain that the government had the duty and ability to mobilize people and resources to improve health care, provide jobs and to restore an aging infrastructure.

In this sense The King's Speech is a historical anachronism masquerading as a buddy movie. Learning history by watching films is always dangerous. Their dramatic strength is generally their scholarly weakness.

Further Readings:

Tony Judt - Postwar

Gareth Stedman-Jones - Languages of Class - Studies in English Working Class History

Paul Watzlawick - The Language of Change


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