By any account, The King’s Speech was an amazing film. As a therapist, I was especially amazed at the poignancy with which the film depicts the healing power of a therapeutic union, and how many elements of a good therapeutic relationship are depicted in the film.
Set in England of the 20s and 30s, the film is about Prince Albert, who became King George the VI (Colin Firth), who took the throne from his brother, who had to abdicate it because he had insisted on marrying a woman who had already been divorced, a scandal that would undo national faith in a king poised to lead England into World War II.
“Bertie,” as George’s loved ones called him, the brave Duke of York, possessed of the thoughtfulness and caring needed to be a strong leader. There’s just one thing: he stammers. Badly. The first scene of him giving a speech at Wembley Stadium which was also being broadcast as his first radio address, is painful to watch. Colin Firth is brilliant in portraying the Duke’s anxiety and the way his body appeared to betray him by closing his throat and choking away his voice. The way his wife, Helena Bonham Carter, flinches when watching is what I feel as audience member.
Enter Geoffrey Rush playing Lionel Logue, a quirky down-on-his-luck Australian actor and speech therapist. His unconventional and shabby flat is the therapeutic container, the room in which most of the relationship unfolds. Nobody else is allowed in and for much of the story, Logue’s family does not know that he is treating the King. Lionel insists on being on a first name basis with the Duke-soon-to-be-King, transcending class, protocol, and tradition in order to establish the healing relationship, which, when good, exists outside of those constraints as much as possible. Lionel levels the heirarchical gap between them with cheeky humor that pushes boundaries.
The future King George VI is challenged, pushed, angered, made to do lots of drills and silly exercises, drawn into the shadow of his psyche, and boosted by this relationship. The speech therapist takes risks, listens, reflects, cares, cajoles, and even screws up a few times. It is a very human and instantly recognizable healing relationship that clearly transforms both people.
And although it’s about speech therapy and not psychotherapy, and although Bertie wasn’t quite ready to dive into painful memories at first, Logue does ask for them right away, and almost immediately suggests that the stammer is related to them and related to feelings of inadequacy towards the bigger brother he’s slated to replace.
And in one incredibly rich scene, Bertie becomes enraged when he finds out that Logue is not a doctor. He actually never said he was, but the transference on Lionel as expert is so strong that the Duke/King believes that he is a doctor.
A lot of technique and interventions are given by Lionel to bring the new king to pivotal speeches from key points in history: his coronation, and the announcement of war. But the healing comes down to, in this film as well as in good psychotherapy, the relationship between the two men. It is a tender friendship, and Lionel comes to know a great deal about Bertie’s deep emotional life. He also sees the greatness in the man, the future King, and in a Merlinesque way, brings out the best in HRH. And this in turn, brings out the best in Logue, giving him a chance to shine in ways the frustrated actor hadn’t been able to before.
We find our way to a King not devoid of fears, but one who is able to face them with courage and to find his center and his voice at the time that he and many others needed it most.
Being cared for, listened to, having your thoughts and feelings mirrored back to you-these types of relationships, when we are lucky enough to have them, can bring such things out of us.
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Links to other reviews of the film