The King's Speech: Nota Bene by Michael Palmer

Nota Bene is Latin for “note well.” It’s used to signify things that are noteworthy and important, and NB is the abbreviation. The film and true story, The King’s Speech, is one of those important things. The Annual Academy Awards don’t always get it right, but they did this past year. They recognized its NB factor and awarded the Oscar for best film to The King’s Speech, which is also available on DVD.

The film begins in 1925 with the king, then still Prince Albert, trying to deliver a speech to a crowded Wembly Stadium. The words stick in his throat, and the silences couched between the half sounds fill the air. The prince’s embarrassment is palpably acute. Though plagued by a mortifying speech impediment—an extreme stammer—he knew he would have to find a voice. In 1936 his brother abdicated the throne, leaving Albert to wear the crown.

Beyond the fundamental desire and need to have his own voice as a man, he was also the voice of the British Empire. He was going to need it even more so because of the rise of Hitler and the looming world war and also because of the new communication medium, radio. A nation saddled with a voiceless king just wouldn’t do.

Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning performance for best actor is a thing of bruised beauty. The film plays out on the battlefield of words not action or special effects. And it works, brilliantly. The dialogue is economical and potent. The film is shot mostly in close up, capturing the subtlety and nuance of deep meaning in faces and vocals and body language. Geoffrey Rush as the eccentric speech therapist, Lionel Logue, is his match in fierce and funny interactions between king and commoner. Class distinctions are bridged by the shared goal of dealing with the disabling defect and by the emergence of an unlikely lifelong friendship.

The king—or Bertie, as Logue insisted on calling him—is walled in by a starched imperiousness, while being tormented, hot tempered, and bashful. The self-taught speech specialist is ambitious for, but not intimidated by, his royal patient. The work is hard and arduous, and in the end, rewarding, when the king goes on radio in 1939 to rally his subjects’ support for the declaration of war on Germany.

The story turns heavily on one heated exchange between the two men:
King: L-listen to me!
Logue: Why should I waste my time listening to you?
King: Because I have a voice!
Logue: …yes, you do.

This is primal stuff. Every human being needs to be heard. The preface to this is the need to have a voice to be heard. It is what makes us human, to speak, to have ideas that we have words for, and at the end of the day (or sentence) to be able to communicate. The absence of this is the basis for angst and fury, which the king has plenty of. Beyond believing you have a voice is to have someone else agree with you (as in Logue’s “yes, you do”).

Without this we end up like the stammering monarch, afraid, embarrassed, and wounded. We end up limiting the use of the power we have, relying on evasions and avoidance, and are as the British say, “too clever by half. ” The king’s boyhood experience is not uncommon…belittling insults that resemble Shakespeare’s “these words are razors to my wounded heart.” They range from quiet humiliations to the blatant, to what feels like a knife fight in a telephone booth.

The results are crippling. Even as an adult, he was still trapped in the drama of his family, riddled with well disguised fears and self doubt, carrying personal ghosts in broad daylight, usually only able to muster a single syllable laugh, with eyes that appear to be teary but with tears that never quite form. And despite appearances, the unseen disposition is a collective chin on chest, cap in hand, on bended knee combination.

The film’s teaching moments are numerous. First, there is the effect of deep friendship, with the kind of help the writer William Styron found in Albert Camus during his dark times. As Styron put it, “Camus was a great cleanser of my intellect, ridding my mind of countless sluggish ideas…causing me to be aroused by life’s enigmatic promise.” Second, there’s the lesson of the obvious but not so simple importance of the power of speech and words, with which we both express and connect….and without which we are hobbled creatures. And third, there is the element of personal courage which can be summoned to help. Logue points this out in saying to the king, “You’re the bravest man I know Bertie, and you’ll make a bloody fine king.” And he was right. Friendship, speech, and bravery combined to compete with old pain, fear, and a disability.

The result is a wiser and better man similar to a character in Howard Griffin’s, “The eyes…it was impossible to escape them, and as they peered into me, I felt what I had felt with few people in my life…the instant certainty that here was a man who had been burned with all the pain and love that men can know, and from whom nothing needed to be hidden.” And how NB is that?