I grew out of a stutter when I was a kid so long ago that I had almost forgotten it, but watching “The King’s Speech” over the holidays brought back some painful memories. The “King’s Speech” is a wonderful movie, the kind that just about the whole family can enjoy together without embarrassment and that audiences spontaneously applaud when the credits start rolling (as the one we were in did).
The film portrays the relationship between the man who became King George VI and the teacher who helped him overcome his stutter. Colin Firth gives a powerful performance as the king. We suffer with him as he tries to speak and admire the sense of duty that drives him to overcome his impediment.
Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal carried a terrific interview of Firth by David Mermelstein. Here is a chunk:
“There’s something very striking about seeing someone summon enormous courage to do what the rest of us do everyday and take for granted,” Mr. Firth said. “The film is not a study of disability, but rather of how someone negotiates a disability. You discover a person or a character by how they handle obstacles. Do they fight or flee? Are they cool-headed or hysterical? Violent? Dignified? Seeing how people manage things, this is what drama is made of.”
Limned by Mr. Firth, Bertie [as the king was known to his family] is at first a prisoner of his affliction–an especially unfortunate situation given the gifts obscured by it. “He should have been a fluent and an eloquent man,” the actor said. “His letters suggest that he had wit and was thoughtful. But he was misjudged as being dull and timid and uncharismatic because he couldn’t get the words out.”
The shame finally brought the prince to Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush in the film), an unorthodox Australian speech therapist living in London, and it is their often-strained relationship that proves the film’s fulcrum.
Mermelstein explores some of the preparation that went into Firth’s performance:
Preparing for the role presented Mr. Firth with myriad challenges. “What you cannot get is direct collaboration from the royal family–or time with them seeing how the job is done, as you might if you were studying other professions,” he said. “But there are biographies, which are quite interesting because they conflict.”
There was also an archival film depicting the full extent of the king’s stutter. “You see the neck and the mouth go,” the actor recalled. “We found it heartbreaking, literally tear-jerking. Something really hit me when watching that. I saw the vulnerability and immense courage all wrapped up in one moment, and the terrible exposure. He can’t laugh it off or explain it away. What struck me was that he never gave up on dignity and grace. I’ve started to develop this extraordinary admiration for people who stammer. I see this courage that I simply don’t have.”
But when it comes to the mechanics of the stutter he affected, Mr. Firth himself is almost tongue-tied. “It’s the most natural question, and it’s the one I have the most trouble with,” he said. “I don’t know how to answer. Tom Hooper and I discovered it through a three-week rehearsal process. But I wasn’t confident we really got it until we were shooting. It’s not the first time I played a character who stammers, but it felt like it, because it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. Each character is specific.”
Mermelstein closes with Firth’s account of the response to his performance from stutterers:
Though the actor must be gladdened by the praise his performance has elicited generally, he seems especially pleased by the positive response from stutterers. “My profession can so often be completely frivolous, which is one of its virtues,” he said. “But whenever I play someone who suffers, I feel there’s a danger that I’m an imposter. So it’s a relief that people who stammer haven’t felt misrepresented. The reason why people tell stories and read stories and see films is to feel less alone. And if there’s a story that takes everyone through something like this, it’s a way to say to others, ‘Now you live through it and see how it feels.’ And if my profession gets that wrong, we’ve lost that opportunity. So it’s a great relief not to have dropped the ball.”
You will want to read the whole thing and see the movie if you haven’t already.