“Know thyself,” admonished the Oracle of Delphi.
“If that which you seek you find not within, you will never find it without,” wrote Doreen Valiente.
When I saw The King’s Speech, I thought about those quotes. And about the kinds of power represented—power that comes from within, from knowing one’s self and having a healthy pride in one’s abilities and accomplishments. And the kind of power that is accorded by holding a certain place in society. Power that comes from without. Power that comes from within.
The King’s Speech therapist was portrayed as one of the most fully realized human beings I’ve seen in cinema. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) did not hold high status in British society. He was a working-class Australian with a seedy office and sketchy credentials. But he had discovered that speech impediments came as often from emotional and psychological trauma as from organic causes. He’d learned to treat Australian World War I veterans using stealth counseling and theater vocal exercises. He was passionate about his field and secure in his ability to help others.
The Duke of York, (Colin Firth), held higher status in society. He was a king’s son, second in line to the throne. He had the power that comes from centuries of tradition—and the accompanying obligations to serve. Unfortunately for him, his father King George V thought one of those obligations was public speaking.
The first scenes, in which the young duke chokes and stutters out a speech broadcast by the BBC, are horribly painful to watch. He has been forced by someone with greater power—his father—into a role that is abosolutely not in line with what he would have chosen.
And yet, it is his struggle against the stammer that allows him to become truly powerful, fully himself, and proud in a healthy way. Muscles aren’t built by doing what’s easy. They’re built by resistance. It isn’t until he begins to resist the casting of himself as a disappointment to his family that he begins to grow into his power.
The King’s Speech also reminded me of the “Portraits of Power” exercise in Thorn Coyle’s Evolutionary Witchcraft. In this exercise, readers are asked to go to an art museum and look for works depicting power. Our own St. Louis Art Museum has works depicting military leaders, lords and ladies, saints and Gods. The kinds of people and beings that our culture teaches us have power. But it also has paintings of women working together to harvest their fields. A lone man, climbing to the top of a cliff. And my nominee for most powerful image: a family of sharecroppers and their cat clinging to the roof of their little cabin in the pouring rain, flood waters raging around them. The father’s hands are clasped in prayer. A ray of light illuminates him.
This is the power of faith, and family. Of nature, and love. Of the will to survive.
It’s the kind of power that comes from the life force within us, and that allows us to live to our highest potential.
A lot of reviewers have called Logue and his methods eccentric. And I suppose they seemed so at the time. What is focused on over and over is not just the physical exercises to strengthen the muscles used for speech; for example, Logue’s having the petite duchess (Helena Bonham Carter) sit on her husband’s stomach while he inhaled and exhaled with enough force to raise and lower her. What’s often mentioned is this colonial commoner’s cheek in insisting the young royals come to his office instead of going hat in hand to the palace when summoned. His nerve in insisting on calling the Duke by his family nickname, “Bertie.”
Logue knew who he was, and knew that his methods worked. He wasn’t willing to dilute them for anyone. He’d used them to transform himself from struggling actor to pioneering therapist. He was sure of his own power to help Bertie find his voice, his power and himself.
In the Duke’s case, the culprits were an abusive nanny, distant parents, and a harsh, authoritarian father. The only person in his life who seemed sympathetic and loving was his wife. Everyone else was intent on pushing him into the royal role their own force had made him uncomfortable with.
And yet, even with the defects of his speech, the film showed that the stuttering duke was ever a more fit king for England in her war years than the dashing older brother who would famously abdicate the throne for “the woman he loved.”
I would say that Bertie’s brother, David, (Guy Pierce) had abdicated his power long before he abdicated his throne as King Edward VIII. He’s shown as a dashing, gilded shell; a man who looks the part of king, but who does not have a stable core of his own. He has the power conferred by rank—and only that power. All else he seems willingly to have given up to Mrs. Wallis Simpson and self-indulgence.
We first see him leaping down from the small plane he’s flown to the family estate for a visit. It’s clear David has not been in communication with his parents or his brother. He has not been attending to the business of the family; he has been off with Mrs. Simpson. David phones his sweetie repeatedly. He visits briefly with his father, King George V, and is late to dinner with his mother, Queen Mary. When his father dies, David’s reaction is that his “poor Wallis” will now be trapped forever in her role as mistress. “Why can’t I do what I want?” he whines.
And eventually, he does. After reigning just 325 days, he abdicates the throne, the governments of both church and state having refused to give in to his desire to marry a twice-divorced American commmoner.
The scene that follows has more in common with divorce court than the romance of the century. The Duke of York signs as witness to the abdication papers, and is now King. He collapses into his wife’s arms. “I’m a naval officer. It’s all I know,” he says.
With no way to avoid speaking publicly, the new King and Queen went back to Logue’s office to mend fences, having given up his therapy in irritation at Logue’s pressing him about his emotional issues. It’s another brilliant scene of internal and external power. The King and Queen are polite and apologetic. They seem to realize their rank means nothing in the therapist’s office.
And yet—the therapist is clearly a little awestruck by the Duke’s having become King. The centuries of tradition that Logue as a British subject has been taught to respect have transformed shy Bertie in his eyes. King George VI needs help; Mr. Logue is honored to give it. His skill and power are at the service not just of a patient, but of his country. He has none of the brashness he displayed in earlier scenes. He all but bows to kiss the King’s ring. He doesn’t surrender his internal power, but he clearly accords the King’s hereditary power equal rank with it.
The climax of the film is an eight-minute speech King George VI is to give explaining to the nation why England has just declared war on Germany. Logue is there to help—but we still feel, watching the King’s terror, that he’d much rather lead his troops on foot to Berlin than face the BBC microphone.
The speech that follows isn’t brilliant. It’s halting, and doesn’t have great expression, and has a stutter here and there. But he gives it. And I believe that the scenes of ordinary Britons listening intently in their homes, the pubs and their workplaces were true to life. They needed a speech from the King. And at last, he had the power to give it.