Going up against Hitler, with a stutter

Oscar favourite Colin Firth excels as a stammering royal who has to inspire a nation
Going up against Hitler, with a stutter
he film’s screenwriter overcame his own childhood stutter after hearing recordings of King George VI’s wartime broadcasts | Alliance Atlantis

No movie this year seems more assured of Oscar recognition than The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth as a monarch struggling to overcome his stammer. It does, after all, have the full set of attributes that define Oscar pedigree—stocked with Brit thespians, it’s a period film that is about royalty and presents an inspirational true story of an underdog overcoming a disability. The movie is also a proven crowd-pleaser, having won the Toronto International Film Festival’s audience award, a predictor of Academy success. It doesn’t hurt that the engagement of William and Kate has thrown British royalty back into the spotlight.

Although Hollywood’s timing is not that prescient, some cynics have even suggested that The King’s Speech was tailor-made for an Oscar coronation, which U.K. director Tom Hooper finds outrageous. “It makes me laugh to read in the press that this film obeyed some recipe for success,” he said by phone from Los Angeles last week. “When we were financing it, I can promise you, it didn’t seem obvious to people at the time.” Asking an audience to watch a lead actor stammer his way through an entire movie does, in fact, seem like a risky proposition. “There were so many pitfalls,” says Hooper. “It could have been comedic in the wrong way. It could have been so painful as to be unwatchable. It could have been so slow that at the end of 100 minutes, you’d be only three scenes in.”

If that last line sounds like a joke at the expense of stutterers, it should be said that The King’s Speech is not without a sense of humour. Basically, it’s a buddy movie, one that hinges on the volatile relationship between the duke of York (Firth), who became George VI, and his irreverent Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Also in the picture are his wife and future queen mother (Helena Bonham Carter), who is portrayed as a nurturing helpmate; their lovely children, the future Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret; and an avuncular Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall). But essentially, it’s a two-man show.

The film picks up the story shortly before the death of King George V, whose successor, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), famously abdicates the throne to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson—leaving Edward’s anxious brother in line to be crowned George VI. What makes his stutter so alarming is the advent of radio, and the pressure on the new king to inspire his people in the face of the looming war against Hitler—someone who had no problem with public speaking. “The film talks about the arrival of mass media and how it transformed leadership,” says Hooper. “A generation before, the king was a visual icon. He had to look good waving from a carriage. With radio, the question was: can he project an emotional connection through the way he talks?”

The film’s screenwriter, David Seidler, overcame his own childhood stutter after hearing recordings of King George VI’s wartime radio broadcasts. He began researching his script in the 1970s. Then, in the ’80s, one of Logue’s sons showed him the therapist’s diaries, but said he’d need the queen mother’s permission to use them. Because the memories were so painful, she asked him to wait until after her death. Seidler, now 73, had to wait 28 years—the queen mother lived to 101.

Originally, the script was about a king who conquered his stutter. “But when you hear his speeches,” says Hooper, “he’s still coping with something. I didn’t want to make a film about the miracle cure. The truth about most disabilities is it’s about living with them—there is no miracle.” A key issue was calibrating the speech impediment. “What I’m most proud of,” says Hooper, “is the conducting of the stammer—when it should be more, when it should recede.”

Perversely, Firth stands to win Best Actor for playing someone paralyzed by performance anxiety. In fact, while preparing the role, Firth connected it to his own fear of public speaking. “When you’re up for an award,” says Hooper, “you’re more nervous about giving a speech than about losing.” Come Oscar time, the star of The King’s Speech should have one prepared.