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A stutter concerns kings and commoners alike

'The King's Speech' gives voice to a mature view of the affliction and those who struggle with it.

December 05, 2010|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic

Public speaking consistently ranks as one of life's most stressful events, up there with divorce, bereavement and home foreclosure. But there's a look of paralytic terror on the face of the protagonist of "The King's Speech" that goes beyond any working definition of stage fright. As the man who will one day become King George VI prepares to deliver a few ceremonial remarks, his doomed countenance suggests not so much a judgmental audience as a firing squad.

Colin Firth, who portrays "Bertie," the second-born, stammering son of Great Britain's King George V, captures the adrenaline-racing horror of a person obliged to speak when speech itself is an uncertain thing. As someone who has stuttered since childhood, I recognize his symptoms only too well — the blood-drained complexion, the collapsing gait, the passive acceptance of death in the eyes.

Director Tom Hooper approaches this opening scene from the overwhelmed perspective of a person who sees a humiliating obstacle course where others see only ordinary words. The psychological suspense, generated from something as banal as talking, is almost Hitchcockian. As Firth's character slowly advances toward the treacherous microphone, the anticipatory rustle of the crowd sounding vaguely like heckling in the distance, his staunch wife ( Helena Bonham Carter) offers support, but there's no escaping the stutterer's radical loneliness.

The isolation is ironic given that the condition typically manifests itself only around other people. (Stutterers tend to be fluent when speaking to themselves, a baby or a pet.) The malady, a true social disorder, is mysterious. Periods of smooth speech alternate with spastic repetitions, seismic blocks and other alarming contortions. Stranger still, singing normally occurs without a hitch.

These quirks have given stuttering something of a dubious air; as disabilities go, it barely makes the list. (An episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" has Larry outraged at a stranger for parking in a handicapped slot when the guy's only problem is a s-s-speech d-d-defect.) Parents and teachers treated my stuttering as an impediment, not as a life-altering affliction (even though, depending on the day, it could very much feel like one). My self-image was colored by having something unfortunate, like acne or a weight problem, not catastrophic, like a condition requiring a wheelchair.

Because the majority of young children who experience episodes of blocked speech don't grow up to be adult stutterers, there's an assumption that stuttering is something to be left behind with one's lunchbox and pencil case. When the condition proves stubborn, it's often met with a skeptical, impatient attitude, as though the problem would vanish if only the person would buck up. To those who can't abide the sight of life being slightly out of control, this seeming recalcitrance (why can't that poor kid get it together?) eventually takes on the sorry appearance of hysteria (good luck to him!).

Poor Bertie is subjected to the usual parental browbeating, sibling teasing and crackpot therapies, including a variation of the mouthful of stones technique Demosthenes tried back in ancient Greece. Like many stutterers I know, Bertie's method of coping is to lay low, to avoid situations that will reveal his stigma and exacerbate his shame. The safe harbor of an all-consuming literary career (as pursued by Henry James, John Updike and W. Somerset Maugham), a library post (such as the one British poet Philip Larkin occupied) or even a theater critic gig (Kenneth Tynan's stylish choice) is out of the question. Unlike these illustrious stutterers, Bertie isn't as free to choose his professional destiny, which has been more or less determined since birth.

The tongue-tied prince's predicament worsens as expectations on him rise. Set in the 1930s, the film takes in the societal changes requiring royals to perform their ceremonial role on a more regular basis. (Delivering speeches, not just in person but also on the radio, is one way of staving off the throne's increasing obsolescence.) As the global crises pile up, with the Great Depression lurching into the Second World War, monarchial leadership has an opportunity to shine. Bertie isn't expected to become king, but history moves in unpredictable ways, and the universal law decreeing that whatever one runs away from is what one must ultimately confront seems to be operating in full effect.

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