In the first five minutes of The King’s Speech a man who will soon be known as George VI, King of England (but for now, known as Prince Albert, Duke of York), approaches a microphone. He’s at Wembley Stadium, it’s 1925, and he’s supposed to deliver the closing speech for the Empire Exhibition. He opens his mouth to speak, and nothing happens. His lips part and close several times, signaling his failed attempts to begin his oration. Finally he chokes out “I have received” before unintentionally pausing, continuing after what feels like a minute, “from His Majesty, the King.” His throat tenses up, and he produces unattractive guttural sounds, punctuating his lack of fluency and destroying his confidence to continue.
In my seat in the movie theater, I cringe. The awkward silences and uncomfortable looks that the Prince receives from the crowd are too familiar for me. I’ve been there. After all, the character (referenced throughout the film as “Bertie”) and I have the same speech impediment: stuttering. We don’t have the more typical impediment based on repetition, but rather one based on hesitations; that is, not st-st-st-stuttering, but rather not-talking-not-talking-still-not-talking-now-he’s-gurgling-and-there-are-awkward-noises stuttering. Our throats tense up and our vocal chords refuse to produce sound. It tends to be something of a roadblock to effective communication, to say the least, and that logic is probably how these pauses got their name—“blocks.”
I may not be a king, but this movie is my life. I mean, if you fast-forward about 80 years; replace Bertie’s supportive, doting wife with my supportive, doting parents; reduce the severity and frequency of the blocks a bit; add in the fact that I’m a second-generation stutterer, following in my dad’s footsteps; and nix that whole part where the entire population of England is relying on the courage of their leader in a time of imminent war, our stories are pretty damn near identical.
In the film and in real life, Bertie has stuttered for as long as he can remember, and he’s seen too many speech pathologists to count. As he grows older and is saddled with more public-speaking responsibilities as a member of the royal family, he resigns himself to believing that it can’t get better. As a sort of Last Hope scenario, he begins therapy sessions with an eccentric speech therapist, Lionel Logue, who works him through every fluency technique in the rulebook. Lionel tries to reduce the impact of Bertie’s stammer (Brit speak, naturally) through the practice of easy onset, by singing sentences with a melody, by speaking while listening to blasting music, and, in a particularly interesting scene, by yelling what basically constitutes George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” when he experiences a block.
The King’s Speech is the first mainstream movie that focuses on a stutterer and his ventures into therapy. For about three million American stutterers—one percent of the population—this is the first time they’re seeing a representation of their struggles on the big screen. I’ve tried all of the techniques Bertie tries (save for the shouted curse words), and I’ve been to lots of speech therapists, albeit none as cool as Lionel. I understand how frustrating it is when Bertie is told to “spit it out,” “slow down!,” and “just relax,” as if his voice will suddenly remember to cooperate with his brain and stop being so damn unhelpful. And I connect with his need to laugh it off as a punch line (“Timing isn’t my strong suit,” he replies to Lionel’s request for a joke).
The movie’s not the easiest thing to watch. Of course, a stutterer, with his sometimes severe facial tics and other involuntary physical techniques, is also not always the easiest thing to watch. But this film is a near-perfect representation of a stutterer’s life. As King George IV, Colin Firth is a marvel, and his re-creation of the King’s first wartime speech in the final scene is terrific, marked by an appropriate number of blocks but clearly displaying confidence and progress.
There’s no cure for stuttering, no quick fix. So I’m glad that this final scene didn’t resolve with Bertie as a master orator, unhindered by silly things like vocal blocks or tension! Fluency is something that must be consistently practiced and worked on. It’ll never be truly perfect, and I’m glad that The King’s Speech exists to communicate that message, all the while showing that, despite the involuntary noises and false vocal starts, a stutter isn’t capable of keeping a good man down.