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Thursday, 24 February 2011

Rendered Speechless, Drenched In Tears

This piece was first published as Movie Review: "The King's Speech" on Blogcritics.                                             


Silent Newsreel Footage of the wedding day of The Duke of York and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth)

It’s December 1936 and the little princesses, Lilibet and Margaret Rose spot their father during their last hours at the family’s private London home.

“Your Majesty!” they whisper to the new King George VI  surely among the first of  his subjects to offer such fealty.Young Royal Family

But as their Daddy,  he bends to cuddle them and  the three share a silent loving gaze of such intense,  bewildered, solemn, fearful desperation that my heart breaks and I continue to sob  shamelessly until after the final credits roll.

The cinematic moment may be fiction but it’s small wonder that  The Queen – doubtless the last living eye-witness to these events - also found The King’s Speech ‘moving and enjoyable’ when she watched it during a private screening at Sandringham House.

This is the same warm-hearted woman who reportedly clasped her hands King.George.VItogether on meeting Geordie Greig, editor of the London Evening Standard newspaper and grandson of surgeon, Sir Louis Greig, recalling how the King and Greig had been “so close”.

But this astonishing movie, created with the deepest loving-care over a lifetime by Anglo-American writer, David Seidler is not about that friendship but another that the King developed with an unqualified Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue.

I have pondered long and hard on the power of this particular film. Why has it been the subject of so much attention and debate? What for example, caused a wholly disinterested  audience at a cinema in Arizona, USA to ‘rise as one and applaud at the finish’?

Is it partly because of the linked scandal about King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson?  Is it the prurient glee caused by watching a monarch swear?

Is it because it is a classic tale of  heroism where  a simple, if royal  personality  becomes great for the hour in which he must accomplish Herculean deeds?

Is it because he is empowered by the very disabilities which he  believes prevent him from fulfilling his duties?

Or have we been touched to the core by the very commonality that may make a humble man a king?

Perhaps it is not one of these but all of them together. Senior members of the real-life Royal Family are blessed with a mutual sense of destiny layered with an exceptional weight of  history that the film textures with   a Shakespearian nobility  and a near-biblical air of service over self.

This can be no accident.  Seidler is the grandson  of Jewish Holocaust victims, whose stutter began on board ship as he and his parents – the survivors - sailed from London to New York to escape The Blitz.

Moreover Colin Firth, who plays the King with understated, unassuming grace, is the son of Christian missionaries. Both of them must be aware of something that to my knowledge has quite oddly escaped general attention.

They – along with The Queen, a most devout Christian -  must  know the stories of Moses The Law Giver who brought the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land without reaching it himself. 

One review has described Firth’s portrayal of the King as “a portrait of that recurrent figure, the stammerer as hero.”

The origins of such popular heroes may well have been propagated by the Bible and according to popular Jewish sources, Moses possibly had a speech defect. Further, like King George VI,  scholars believe he was also  left-handed.

Physician Dr  Henry A Garfinkel writes in the summary of his paper, Why Did Moses Stammer? And Was Moses Left-Handed? (Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, May 1995):

“Moses, the great lawgiver, ‘ … the chief of the prophets' according to Maimonides, probably had a speech defect. 'I am not a man of words ... for I am of slow speech, and of a slow tongue', Moses states, and later he pleads “... I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh hearken unto me?’ Most authorities consider these quotations to mean that he stammered.”

Dr Garfinkel bases his conclusions on “the last few sections of the Book of Genesis and the early part of the Book of Exodus” together with stories from the Midrash – Jewish interpretations of Bible stories whose meanings are not initially apparent. He ends:

“Moses probably suffered from a stammer. There are known factors which can produce such a speech defect and a plausible explanation for his stutter is presented. It is reasoned that he was in a deep hypnotic trance brought
about by intense mental and physical turmoil when he was aged three. Associated injury to his mouth and tongue probably resulted in permanent damage to his speech. Moses (Dore Drawing)

“Evidence is also presented suggesting that Moses may
have been left-handed. His prophetic ability as an adult may well have been aided by his skill in achieving a deep trance-like state which he first acquired at the time of his ordeal in Pharaoh's palace.”

 Debates about this film as a work of art and its arguable  flaws will continue for a long time. This is a measure of its strength. I believe it’s the best British movie for 20 years and I add my voice to those decrying the proposed closure of the UK Film Council. Should its abolition go ahead, glorious films like this will no longer be possible.

Historical footnote:

Queen.Mother(Youg)A posthumous endorsement to the marvellous effect Lionel Logue had on King George VI has been found in a recently-discovered handwritten note that Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother wrote to Logue after his death during February 1952.

She said that her husband had owed him a debt of gratitude for helping him not merely with his stutter, but his whole life:

"I think that I know perhaps better than anyone just how much you helped the King, not only with his speech, but, through that, his whole life, and outlook on life …I shall always be deeply grateful to you for all you did for him." Of the King, she added: "He was such a splendid person, and I don't believe that he ever thought of himself at all. I did so hope that he might have been allowed a few years of comparative peace after the many anguished years he had to battle through so bravely. But it was not to be." Queen Elizabeth's letter to Logue was unearthed by the Australian speech therapist's grandson, Mark, among family papers a few months ago.

Trailer to “The King’s Speech”

  • Oscar Results – February 2011:
  • Best Director: Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)
  • Best Actor: Colin Firth (The King's Speech)
  • Best Picture: The King's Speech
  • Best Original Screenplay: David Seidler (The King's Speech)


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