Living life without being able to speak easily and fluently is more than just a mere trial. Relaying even the simplest thought is grueling—as well as frustrating and sometimes embarrassing. Well-meaning but patronizing family members offer all manner of useless advice regarding elocution. Speech therapists fill your mouth with marbles and then command you to speak clearly. Telling your children a simple bedtime story is a verbal obstacle course. The thought of standing in front of a microphone summons sheer terror.
And if you are a king, called upon to bolster and unite a fearful nation in the face of war, well, then, the stakes are more than just ease of communication. They are life and death.
His Royal Highness King George VI found himself in this exact position. A stammerer since childhood, no one—least of whom himself—had confidence in his ability to lead the British Empire after his elder brother, David (later King Edward VIII) scandalously abdicated the throne in order to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson.
But before King George VI becomes king, he is “merely” Prince Albert, father of Elizabeth II (the current queen of England) and husband to Elizabeth, the beloved and now deceased queen mother. In 1925, after Albert’s devastatingly awkward public address to the British Empire Exhibition—if stuttering a few syllables can be considered an address—his wife seeks help from an unlikely source: Lionel Logue.
An eccentric, unemployed Australian actor informally trained in elocution, Lionel is unwaveringly confident in his unorthodox treatments for stuttering. He boldly tells Elizabeth that he will treat Albert only on his turf and by his rules. And by demanding total equality with Albert—whom he even calls Bertie, as the prince’s family members do—Lionel introduces the stuffy royal to the common man’s common life.
The two gradually become friends. Their decades-long relationship produces not only a more confident monarch and better speeches for the British Empire, but a deep camaraderie that helps Albert begin to understand himself and the people he’s leading. And Lionel not only helps the repressed future king find his personal voice, he helps him to speak like a monarch who has a right to be heard.
Lionel and Albert dearly love their respective wives and children, and Elizabeth is steadfast in her commitment to and love for Albert. She is his comforter, champion and friend who never reveals her own subtle doubts that he will overcome his stammer.
Albert is far more politically and morally discerning than David, and takes the royal family’s duties seriously. He scolds David for his poor leadership on more than one occasion. Hardworking Albert is also tireless in performing the speech exercises Lionel suggests. He continually works to better his speech and prepare for possible kingship even when his personal life is in turmoil. And though he may not always understand the people he will govern, he is determined to lead them well.
Lionel encourages Albert to dig deeply into his lonely childhood memories, thus exposing abuses the prince suffered at the hands of indifferent nannies and frosty, Victorian-era parents. Lionel also offers the future king genuine, unaffected friendship—for perhaps the first time in the royal’s life. He compassionately sees Albert as an emotionally broken but valiant man with tremendous potential for greatness. Lionel, in fact, cares for all his “patients” with the same kindness and dedication.
As a result of his harsh childhood and stammering, Albert has lived in fear most of his life. Lionel tells him there’s hope—that he doesn’t have to be afraid of the things that haunted him when he was young—and that he’s a friend who will always listen.
Mostly stock, cultural expressions: Albert’s father, King George V, says “God bless you” during a Christmas speech. Posters are emblazoned with “God save the king.” God is mentioned during a coronation. Albert publicly announces that Great Britain must commit its wartime cause to God.
As head of the Anglican Church, the king of England is not allowed to marry a divorcée—but David does so anyway, raising the eyebrows and ire of many countrymen.
David and the twice-divorced Wallis scandalize the world with their love affair. (None of their intimacy is shown, and the phrases “expert ministrations” and “certain skills” stand in for frank descriptions of why David is attracted to her.) Albert tells Lionel of a girl whom he and David pursued in their youth, and dialogue subtly implies that both had sex with her on separate occasions.
Wallis wears a dress with a plunging back. Crude language is used for male genitalia and women’s breasts. Couples kiss.
Prone to fits of temper, Albert yells—especially at Lionel—several times. The threat of war (conveyed via newsreels of Hitler’s zeppelins and marching troops) hangs in the air.
Close to 20 each of f- and s-words. Christ’s name is abused twice, and God’s is misused at least once. The British crudity “bloody” is used more than a dozen times. Another British profanity, “b-gger,” is used about 10. There’s a handful each of the words “d‑‑n,” “b‑‑tard,” “a‑‑” and “h‑‑‑.” Crude slang is used for sexual anatomy (“t-ts,” “pr–k,” “balls” and “willie”).
People smoke cigarettes and cigars. Of note is that while doctors say the smoke is good for vocal cords, Lionel insists it’s toxic. Alcohol is served at a cocktail party as well as at Lionel’s home. Albert asks for liquor, and Lionel offers him a second drink, presumably to loosen up the ultra-formal royal.
Edward VIII (David) and Wallis are sympathetic toward Hitler, whom they admire. And so, deeply concerned British politicians don’t know which way the monarch will lean politically. Their negative perception of him is strengthened by the fact that before and during his brief reign, David is irresponsible in his duties.
Frightened by the prospect of being crowned king and resentful of Lionel’s informality, Albert pulls rank, harshly and arrogantly calling Logue the disappointing “nobody” son of a brewer. Albert’s younger brother Johnny, who died as a youth, was born “different,” and was hidden away from public view as a result. Albert’s nanny is said to have withheld affection and food from him when he was young—and his parents didn’t notice for three years.
How often have we awkwardly looked away from other people’s disabilities, unable to face their agonizing struggle to accomplish what average folks do with ease?
In The King’s Speech, an entire empire looks away from Albert and his excruciating stutter. Yet he speaks to an audience that is just as fearful as he. When the certainty of a dark and vicious war—and its uncertain outcome—overshadows Great Britain, the nation longs for a leader who will competently guide and encourage citizens to victory. And because they’re not certain Albert is up to the task, we feel their agony just as deeply as we feel his when, at times, he labors to utter even a single word.
People are ashamed for him. Embarrassed because of him. And yet they simultaneously have their fingers crossed for him because he is their only hope.
Today we have the comfort of the historical record. We know how the story ends. The actual King George VI did indeed have a stutter (though its severity is debatable), and overcame enough of his oral issues to address his people with only periodic hesitations. But he never fully overcame his impediment, just as the onscreen king doesn’t. Instead, he faced it, tackling his limitations with Lionel’s help and encouragement. Perhaps the fact that Albert is never completely cured is the most inspiring reminder that courage rarely comes in the absence of fear or weakness. Courage is action in the face of these things, and the elder King George says Albert has more bravery than all of his brothers combined. Lionel agrees and helps Albert to see it too. So much so that the once ineffective King George VI becomes a national symbol of pride and wartime resistance during World War II.
This touching, masterfully acted and subtly comedic film could easily have been PG-rated, making its stirring message readily available for teens and families hungry for an inspiring life lesson devoted to clawing one’s way past shortcomings and limitations. Instead, director Tom Hooper opted for a profanity-laden R rating. Several times Albert angrily blurts out long streams of curse words during speech therapy, since the only times he doesn’t stutter are when he sings and when he swears.
Regarding the foul language and its resulting rating, star Colin Firth told The National Post, “This isn’t a non-issue. I get that people don’t want their small children hearing these strong words—I don’t like them. … I don’t want my kids thinking it’s a good way to use language—language is more beautiful than that. It should be more thought about than that. It has more power than that. That’s lazy and ugly—but that’s not the case in this movie. [The foul language usage is] not vicious, it’s not sexual, and it’s not lazy—it’s anything but. These are tools, these forbidden words have become momentary tools to get a guy to break out of extreme repression. Then he immediately gets rather sheepish and apologizes. There couldn’t be a more harmless context. It doesn’t teach your kids to sprinkle your language with these words or direct them against people. I would hate to deny kids in that age bracket, or discourage them from seeing a film which has so much to say to people that age.”
Firth continues, “As far as the rest of public opinion is concerned, certainly in our industry, I’d be kicking in a door. Because everyone seems to be in harmony on the subject.”
While many will see his point, not everyone is in harmony. Context, when it comes to obscenity, is not the end of the discussion for most families. Surely it’s fair to ask why a movie of this caliber must be first edited (by way of an airline, a TV network or a ClearPlay machine) before the very kids Firth wants to see influenced can reasonably encounter it.
A postscript: The Weinstein Company initially sued the MPAA for assigning The King’s Speech an R rating, arguing that, in fact, context was the end of the discussion. “While we respect the MPAA,” said owner Harvey Weinstein, “I think we can all agree that we are living with an outdated ratings system that gives torture porn, horror and ultraviolent films the same rating as films with so-called inappropriate language.”
After the film won Best Picture, among other Oscars, at the 2011 Academy Awards, Weinstein decided to make a few changes to the film’s language, at least enough to secure a PG-13 rating for a a new version. A statement from the studio declared that the new “family-friendly version” was created for “those to whom it speaks most directly—young people who are troubled by stuttering, bullying and similar trials.” The decision was met with instant derision from the film’s star. “I don’t support it,” said Colin Firth, who won a Best Actor award for his role as the king. “I think the film has its integrity as it stands. I’m not someone who’s casual about that kind of language. I take my children to [soccer] games. I hate hearing that kind of language in their ears, but I won’t deny them the experience of a live game. … I still haven’t met the person who’d object to it.”
Be that as it may, the changes, for many moviegoing families, will go unnoticed because the expletives in question haven’t been muted or bleeped, they’ve merely been replaced with other expletives. Specifically, the long series of f-words that the king blurts out is now a long series of s-words. And one full f-word remains intact at the outset of the outburst.