"The King's Speech," starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, and directed by Tom Hooper (2010), is a story of courage amidst disability. In my opinion, one should not hesitate, or stammer, when thinking about going to see this movie. Not just because Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush (and Helena Bonham Carter) are riveting or because of its brilliant period perfect glimpse into everyday British royalty amidst a Europe rushing towards its second world war or because we get to see the seemingly immortal Queen Elizabeth as a girl.
Here are the facts of the movie: It was the 1930's, King George V was dying and the throne was to be passed on. Upon the tough and trusted monarch's death his oldest son, Edward, became king. But not for long. Immature, impulsive, dependent on a married American woman (Mrs. Simpson), and unable to bear the mantle of king he soon abdicated the throne. His younger brother, known among the family as 'Bertie', became King George VI. But there is more.
Bertie stammered, severely, from age four or five and his subjects around the world suffered whenever he tried to deliver upon his princely public responsibilities. He put himself out there nevertheless and tried a variety of treatments, with no success. Facing becoming king, however, his choice was to retreat or to "Keep Calm and Carry On," how the Brits have come to depict their national character.
If you stammer, however, keeping calm, no less carrying on, is hard. And if you are a prince, or worse, on your way to becoming king, and face a world that will need confident leadership to withstand the terror of war and the harrowing threat of Nazi tyranny, you have a big problem on your hands. How can your empire find assurance in their king if he cannot speak to them without failing with every word?
What we have the great pleasure of witnessing in this film is the transformation of a man. His courage in the face of disability is presented in its full humanity since his road, too, has big bumps and deep ruts that derail. His disability was speech. But I thought it could have been depression (or any other mental illness), cerebral palsy, epilepsy, or so many other conditions that produce impediment but need not consign a person to a compromised life. And I know, from countless examples, that a person burdened with disability can make a life with disability, can have a life of dignity and contribution.
But Bertie could not do it alone. That is a fundamental message of the film. He had, in the end, a team to help him. The team begins with his wife, who married him on his third proposal, and was a reluctant monarch herself. She finds Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist known for his unconventional methods -- hardly whom royalty might consult. Lionel must win the trust of Bertie (as prince and later as king) and to do so he must also establish himself as an equal. This is no small feat, since trust (or equality with a royal!) is not won easily or quickly, presenting a necessary, if formidable, test of Lionel's resolve and technique. As it must, for it is this trusted relationship among equals, their friendship, which provides the crucible for the transformation. Doctors, therapists, helpers of all stripes, pay attention: It is not authority that provides the foundation for healing and recovery, but trust and equality.
What made this man's transformation all the more credible is that trust and support, alone, were shown to be necessary but not sufficient. Functioning beyond disability requires skills. Lots of them, learned and practiced again and again. Bertie had to have the will to recover, the support of family and friends (even of Churchill, a childhood stammerer himself), and an expert to teach him how to function beyond his disability. Lionel was highly skilled and a great teacher whose techniques gave Bertie what he needed to manage his stammering and become one of the needed voices of the western world during a very dark and uncertain time. And Lionel was no better, and no less, a person than his student, the King of England.
We all have our limitations -- some more than others. When pronounced we call them disabilities. Facing and fighting the demons of disability -- our own and those that culture and society can hail upon the disabled -- is the gauntlet of those who confront the choice of a life of retreat and shame or one of engagement and pride. The path of a life lived rather than a life missed takes will, true friendship and learned skills. Hats off to the Bertie's and Lionel's of the world.
The opinions expressed herein are solely my own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate.
Dr. Sederer receives no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.
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