This is one of my favorite experiences I’ve ever had with a film. I saw it in theaters after selecting it at random, based on the wording of certain critics without any knowledge of what it was about. The Oscar buzz had not started to ramp up, which is the perfect time to check out a movie before the hoopla and rigmarole eclipse the film itself. If I hadn’t seen it when I did I might have missed the profoundly personal connection I have with it, I might have only heard the rabble, the generic din of praise for a perfectly written, acted, and directed film while discounting the thing about movies that make them more than just brightly lauded ponies in a horse race for statues and box office receipts. In a period piece about the Duke of York in the mid 20th century I found a sort of hero and a kindred spirit; I was reminded of how much I love language in general and how it changed my life; it’s easy to forget how beautiful and inspiring it can be while we live in an era when the New York Times is written at a 10th grade level and politicians speak monosyllabic, party vetted, pre-polled speeches that rarely inspire and never offend. I have a great affinity for legendary orators, for Lincoln and Churchill, who applied their own humor and eloquence to their addresses in ways that made their words timeless and inspiring. I can go back and read about their experiences and the words they used to describe some of the most epic and turbulent periods of modern history and I find humanity redeemable again, if only for a few minutes at a time.
There is a version of this film that was edited to reduce the amount of profanity when some words are used as part of the therapeutic process and I fully understand both perspectives of the small controversy it created. Most adults recognize that language, however profane, is only that, a vehicle for communicating ideas but there are some words that parents and teachers do not want shared with children of a certain age, children with speech problems who may be encouraged and inspired by a story like this. I’d argue that the material might be a little dull for a child and that a young adult is probably going to be more comfortable with both the content and the language itself but whatever gets a story like this out to more people, without undermining the essential message on display, is perfectly alright with me. Although I trend more towards a purist, towards supporting an artist’s right to create and hew his work as closely to their vision as possible, sometimes the message itself is more important than how it’s being said.
Recently, I discovered that I still have a stammer. Close friends of mine might consider that an impossibility given my tendency to ramble for hours on end about any and every passionate subject I happen to stumble on but it’s cropped up recently because of a career change that requires me to talk to strangers about complex problems all day long. It’s not debilitating, I don’t want to give the impression that I am some kind of hero myself for completing a sentence but it’s a part of my childhood that I’ve completely forgotten until the other day when I found myself mute, frozen in space while a customer waited in suspense for me to finish what I was saying. It’s hard to describe the moment when your mind tells your body to do something very basic and it simply does not cooperate. It’s scary and frustrating and embarrassing, which has a tendency to make the issue worse. As a kid I retreated into books and comics. I discovered and built a vocabulary that I didn’t know how to use at first and this helped me move past my stammer by distracting myself with synonym, metaphor and simile. I found new ways to express myself when the words I wanted wouldn’t come and in this I was improved for the experience: I found my confidence in losing my stammer. The strange thing is that I don’t know that there is such thing as a cure, it’s something that’s always a part of me. Which is an idea that I found so compelling about The King’s Speech.
I’ve seen Pride and Prejudice as well as Bridget Jones’ Diary (why are you looking at me like that) and I never found Colin Firth to be anything other than capable, if bland. I accept that he is considered handsome but why, I do not know. But I never considered him a gifted actor until this film. It’s hard to explain how authentic and compelling his performance is if you haven’t experienced the frustration that his character is going through. There is so much beauty and complexity in his facial expressions, the clear undercurrent of emotion that is swimming through his mind as he chains together word after word. Fear of public speaking is pretty common and although it should be difficult to relate to an English Duke assuming the mantle of responsibility for his country during the build up to the second World War, somehow, with a brilliant and clever script, Tom Hooper and company tell a pretty lovely story about friendship that is accessible and endearing. Even though this is a film about stammering, they achieve a steady confident rhythm that draws the viewer in, visiting the personal fears and insecurities of each character with perfect tone. And it’s a wonderful thing to see a film that has no action or violence to speak of, that is purely about two souls connecting or not connecting, about a loving marriage, or a scary father, about a brave but tormented person struggling to outgrow his demons.
It’s a well reviewed and deservedly awarded film like The King’s Speech that is able to imbue a sort of kinship between two people with vastly different backgrounds and upbringings. That I found a way to work around my small impediment feels so insignificant when compared to a man who had to work around a much more severe impairment while the entire world, in its darkest hours, waited and listened to every word. But the kinship is still there, the feeling of not being alone, of sharing with a stranger that irrational and primal fear that this voice has fled forever, and that we didn’t deserve to have it in the first place. It’s often, but not always, some kind of emotional trauma at a young age where it starts and just like the stammer that trauma never goes away, not really. It informs and affects. Arrests and influences. But it doesn’t have to rule if you don’t let it. To paraphrase one of my favorite and possibly apocryphal speeches from Churchill himself delivered in lieu of a prepared statement, never ever ever give up. Because in the end it’s more about what we do than what we say. Or how we say it.