The King’s Speech

(Dedi Felman, who has written previously here about the art of film adaptation, was particularly impressed with the way a screenwriter handled the challenges of a recently released historical film. Here’s Dedi on The King’s Speech, a new hit that’s been generating a lot of Oscar nominations, and some controversy as well. — Levi)

“Two men sitting in a room talking.” That’s how director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler described, in a recent post-screening talk, their marvel of a film, The King’s Speech. Hooper and Seidler even said that they cut back on some of the original script’s history and pageantry scenes (e.g. King George V’s funeral) because they wanted to nudge us ever closer to the film’s heart: a stammerer and his speech therapist sitting around talking about how a would-be king can find his voice.

But how does one make a film about two men sitting around talking gripping? Especially if one of those men has a stammer and makes us “wait a long time” for the punchline to his jokes? And how does one create even a modicum of suspense in a story of a family about whom the basic facts are part of the history books? The wartime broadcasts that lie at the core of this story made a huge impression on their listeners and so, spoilers or no, many audience members are aware that George VI does make it through the speech. Similarly, Edward’s deliciously scandalous abdication on account of an American divorcee is common lore. So we know a great deal going in. Yet we’re still completely drawn into Bertie’s plight. Will he find his voice?

Seidler’s a master storyteller to pull all this off. Let’s take a quick run through some of his techniques. Like all good storytellers, Seidler knows the importance of having high stakes. In this case, they couldn’t be higher. The country is at war and the British Empire needs a King who due to that damned new technology, the radio, can provide an oral — as opposed to merely visual — public bucking up. Bertie’s got a stammer and deep-rooted trauma. He neither believes he can be King, nor particularly believes in himself. His stammer, the resulting conflicts with his father and brother, his upbringing, and his nanny all contribute to his deep ill ease with self — and his resistance to cure. He needs fluent speech to reassure his country. He needs fluent speech to find his own life “place.” We’ve got personal and public stakes of the highest emotional sort.

The storytelling icing on the cake? These conflicts have universal elements. We ordinary folk may not have stammers and no kingly duties await us. But who hasn’t needed to find their voice to discover their true path in life? And how many of us haven’t had to leap over impediments placed by father and family in order to do so? Seidler levels the challenges faced by royalty and commoners. It’s a tremendous feat.

Seidler then uses these high stakes to create suspense. We are so emotionally invested in this character and take his stakes so personally that despite our knowledge of how it will all turn out, we’re on the edge of our seats actively routing for Bertie to succeed. As Hitchcock said, with emotional investment one can create suspense even when there’s no surprise.

How else does Seidler get viewers so involved? As most women’s magazines will tell you, humor can be more important than looks with regard to male attractiveness. Bertie may not have timing going for him but both he and Logue have incredible wit. If the challenge of humorous screenplays is to “find your funny,” in this aspect Seidler has hit it with grace notes. Both characters avoid the trap of maudlin exaggerations that might accompany such an impediment; their utterances hit dryly perfect notes. A lot of the credit goes to these two great actors, but witty dialogue and great restraint in the writing is the actors’ launching point.

I was also intrigued by how Seidler uses both Logue’s and Bertie’s families to warm them up. Both men have strong, witty, sensitive and understanding wives. And, for some extra resonance, both have children who grow up to have stories — and voices — of their own. Bertie rarely stammers with his children; he seems most comfortable in his role as loving Dad. As a Royal, Bertie can be gruff to Logue. But we get a glimpse of his inner tender teddy bear when he’s with his kids and we immediately feel protective. And we bond. Logue’s boys similarly highlight the play and tenderness in the man. And the scene where our fearless therapist is too terrified to tell his wife his secret about treating Bertie is comic, humanizing gold. To portray the men’s insecurities and strengths through their relationships with others is the stuff of screenwriting, in this case exceptionally well done. To nail the tertiary characters, especially children, and use them to round out your main characters’ humanity is an extra challenge in such a very adult flick.

Conflict and reversals in the script are also extremely well-played. The resolution for Bertie depends less on a purely psychological resolution of his trauma than on his finding of a friend. It’s an arc handled with extreme care and paced accordingly. From the moment Logue and Bertie meet, we know each man has met his match. “How about Bertie?” Logue suggests as a form of address. The would-be king only grudgingly acquiesces. Then fed up with what he considers Logue’s insolence (and possibly scared by what he might learn about himself) Bertie breaks off their first consultation. Upon hearing how flawlessly he read on the record Logue that gifts him, Bertie resumes the meetings which are then interrupted again by Bertie’s father’s death and a bit later by another spat, this one turning on the highly upsetting topic to Bertie of whether he is, after all, fit to be King. (It’s at this point, “a Low Point” at the end of the second act, that Bertie verbally flogs Logue for what he considers his treasonous statements.) The heated conflict over their identities — Logue’s status, Bertie’s elevation, who’s in charge and who knows best — continues up to the penultimate moment when Bertie in a fit of pique (and probably nerves) picks a fight with Logue over his credentials. “True, you never called yourself ‘Doctor’. I did that for you,” Bertie explodes. Yet when the Archbishop tries to dispense of the “imposter,” Bertie, in a quick turnaround, sticks up for his teacher.

Resolution is attained only in the final scene, after the glorious speech has been made and all doubts put to rest. When Bertie thanks “his friend” and Logue thanks … “Your Majesty,” it’s an incredibly poignant beat, a moment of mutual recognition between two proud and “splendid” men. It’s also a moment of high emotion for the viewers. The screenwriter, Seidler, couldn’t have better earned the payoff. See The King’s Speech. And don’t be surprised if afterward, you’re sitting around in a room with a friend talking for hours on end.

5 Responses

  1. The irony of the piece is
    The irony of the piece is that the King is not allowed a voice. The problem with Prince Charles, for example, is that he not only has a voice but seems intent upon using it, mouthing off left right and centre about whatever it is that crosses the chicken coup that is his mind.

    One of the strands running through the film is that the abdication crisis was basically a palace coup whereby the listless and Hitler-favouring Edward was forced out by the establishment in favour of the bumbling Bertie. This also explains the Archbishop’s initial hostility to Bertie and Logue as the Archbishop is established as sympathetic to Edward suggesting that he was a member of the strand in the British establishment that favoured rapprochement with the Nazis.

    The real drama of the film takes place off-stage as one wing of the establishment tussles with another and Churchill waits in the wings. The point of the film is not ‘will the King find his voice?’ but ‘who will command the voice of the King?’.

  2. The point of the film is
    The point of the film is ‘who will command the voice of the King?’.


    I absolutely love this! What a great way of putting an essential theme and subplot of the film.

    As we tried to explain in the preface, I wrote this piece for elsewhere and was focusing on screenwriting techniques. My emphasis on whether Bertie would find his voice wasn’t meant to say that that was the movie’s “point”. Rather, this is the central question that serves as the *dramatic engine* for the script/movie. (Something screenwriters must think about in crafting their scripts.)

    And yes, the succession and who commands the voice of the King is an absolutely crucial subplot in the film. I asked Levi to include the Hitchens link as I thought that was an interesting treatment of the history that was playing out in the film, a side that as I noted was, as I understand it, dialed back from the original script. I don’t think Hitch gets the intentions of the filmmakers/screenwriter exactly right. I think Seidler tried to portray Churchill as more mixed and as a potential snake in the grass than Hitch gives him credit for, but Hitchens’s points about the politics behind the succession and the Chamberlain’s and the royal family’s support for the politics of appeasement are crucial ones to make. (Though again, I agree that this was in fact a point of Seidler’s as well and a takeaway from the film.)

    As for “the overall point” of the film, I like the way you put it, or as I might put it, ‘Can the King find and then continue to command his own voice?’ In other words, as I tried to put it above, the basic plot revolves around the double movement of Bertie finding his own voice BY finding out who his friends really are. That friend turns out to be an Australian/English commoner named Logue, not the Archbishop, not Churchill, not anyone in his own family or anyone, really on the government side. (And I read into this not just a question about the current royal family, but, of course also, Blair and the question of Brits carefully considering who ARE their real friends.)

    All of which is to say, yes, I think we’re in agreement on theme if not dramatic engine. And I really appreciate your thought-provoking post. I didn’t highlight as much as I might have this aspect of the film and am glad you did!

    Best, Dedi

  3. I saw this movie and thought
    I saw this movie and thought it was tremendous. I hope it wins best picture. Yet I approached it from the point of view of a public speaking teacher and, knowing my craft as I do, felt for sure this was themed around ‘finding your voice’ as well. Jonathan’s observation is interesting, but the movie certainly downplayed some of the history involved and even took liberties with the history as well.

  4. One of the hallmarks of a
    One of the hallmarks of a creative work is that it generates dialogue. The King’s Speech has generated a wealth of dialogue from varied points of view. It has brought to the forefront and stirred empathy for people with speech problems. It’s brought forth from dusty corners historical perspectives regarding a volatile time in history for all concerned. I’ve even learned a bit about kilts from discussions on the web. And it certainly has roused more discussion regarding royalty.

    The story, although based on factual events, is after all a story and historical fiction, but it seems to me a story of personal struggle and relationships. It is not only the story of a king and his speech therapist, it is the story of a person with tremendous inner and highly visible struggles and the teacher and friend who helps him learn to adapt and cope.

    Personally, I thought the way the historical background was woven throughout the story was a wonderful act of writing by Seidler, and with a remarkable group of people, a beautiful film which will continue to resonate with many was accomplished.

  5. Steve and Victoria, what
    Steve and Victoria, what terrific notes! You both make an excellent point about the liberties the film takes and that being the nature of historical fiction and/or the screenwriting art. I didn’t address this question in the post but you’re absolutely right to point it out and its something that a lot of screenwriters feel very strongly about. In other words, many writers would say that of course the screenplay deviates from historical realities, it’s a screenplay, not a documentary. Invention is a key difference between all fiction and nonfiction works. And, of course, that’s exactly right. But I guess I’m also of the mindset that if one does choose a topic based in real life, probably best not to make one’s departures from real life so jarring that the viewer feels “popped out” of the fictional story. Where that line gets drawn is a question I still struggle with.

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