...shining light on the media, one review at a time
When a new edited version of The King’s Speech was released, reduced from an R rating to PG-13, I was pleased that The Weinstein Company must have at least realized the greater earning potential of a lower rating. My pleasure was equaled by confusion, however, as to why the production studio would have originally released such a film with enough foul language to garner the R.
Based on a true, inspiring story, The King’s Speech does not fit the bill of the typical blockbuster that goes out of its way to earn an R rating. Instead, the film is filled with unexpected heroism, an emphasis on family, love, friendship, and other positive values. Unfortunately, the uplifting messages that should have been central to this story are tarnished by the film’s woefully unnecessary and flippant use of offensive language. Surprisingly, the language isn’t the only failing of this award-winning film, as even from an artistic standpoint, I have to question whether or not The King’s Speech legitimately deserves the acclaim it has received.
From the moment this film begins, we understand that Prince Albert, played by Colin Firth, has a problem. As the second son of the aging King George V, Albert is expected to give speeches and presentations in public settings, but, as painfully demonstrated in more than one compelling scene, he is hampered by a stammer that only increases with pressure and nerves. The embarrassment and personal difficulty of Prince Albert’s situation is the emotional hinge from which The King’s Speech hangs.
Not long into the story, one starts to realize that this film is character-driven in the extreme, resulting in a loosely structured, slow-moving plot. The story jumps years with leapfrog bounds that leave one discombobulated and risk detachment from the characters, but somehow do not seem to move the story forward at a promising rate. But despite the plot failings, director Tom Hooper manages to keep viewers interested, primarily due to the strength of the concept (featuring a true story and the British monarchy—both reliably bankable elements in Hollywood movies) and a realistic, yet unexpectedly humorous approach.
Movie audiences love the underdog—and what more compelling figure to play that role than a royal leader who featured prominently in world history. Prince Albert’s stutter makes him relatable to the everyman, and even Americans enjoy a chance to see a royal revealed to be just like the rest of us. The Prince is not immune to hardship or even the ridicule incurred because of his uncontrollable stammer. He also has the human characteristics of a bad temper, which he exhibits on more than one occasion, and fear. This fear is what threatens to make Albert give up the pursuit of finding help for his speech and is the emotion that fans the flames of self-doubt, keeping Albert convinced that he could never act as King.
Here we come to the most uplifting elements of the film, and the most compelling reasons to watch it. Through love and encouragement, two characters manage to break through Prince Albert’s defeatist and defensive attitude. The first and arguably most influential person in this regard is Albert’s wife, Elizabeth (played by Helena Bonham Carter). Unfailingly supportive, Elizabeth demonstrates the difference that constant love and respect can make in an individual’s life, even when that individual is as emotionally damaged as Prince Albert. Because of her unstinting belief in her husband’s potential, Elizabeth refuses to give up the search for someone who can help with his speech difficulties. As a result, she discovers the one person who will champion Prince Albert as she does and help him in ways she cannot—Lionel Logue.
Known as a speech therapist with unconventional and controversial methods, Logue immediately puts Elizabeth and Prince Albert off-guard. In the initial humorous encounters, Logue insists on informality—even calling Prince Albert “Bertie,” his family nickname—and wants to discuss Albert’s private life and history. Over time, and the course of plot diversions that take us too far away from the characters and story, we begin to see the impact that Logue is going to have on Prince Albert. Ahead of his time, Logue realizes that the root cause of Albert’s speech impediment is to be found in his difficult childhood, where he suffered abuse, and in the ridicule that he still receives from his own family. Only when Logue gets Albert to address these issues and the fear that they cause does his stammer become more significantly controllable. More importantly, however, Logue helps Albert to believe in himself—a belief that becomes crucial later on in the film.
Though these speech therapy sessions are among the most entertaining and inspiring scenes in the film and are crucial to Albert’s inspirational ability to overcome obstacles, they are also at the heart of the most controversial issue that ultimately undermines the positive elements of the story. During a particular speech therapy session, Prince Albert learns that he can swear without stammering. Logue immediately highlights this discovery and encourages Albert to swear repeatedly, thinking of as many foul words as he can and spewing them out in rapid succession. This string of obscenities and other crudities is the sequence that justifiably earned the film an R rating. The severity of the language in this and following, similar scenes is reduced in the PG-13 version, but the effect is just as disturbing.
In defense of the R-rated version’s language, actor Colin Firth argued that the film’s use of these words is “innocent,” because of the so-called harmless context. However, there is a reason that Prince Albert is able to say these particular words without stuttering, and it is far from innocent. Nor is there “innocence” behind Logue’s effort to egg Albert on in his pursuit for dirty words to speak, as Logue taunts, “Is that the best you can do?” Yet, moviegoers are prompted to laugh at this use of foul language as a therapy “tool,” as it is presented in a humorous light that only encourages the desensitization to and acceptance of such offensive words.
Even an argument that this scene may accurately portray what occurred during the real Prince Albert’s therapy would not be a sufficient excuse, as a skilled storyteller can always find creative ways to convey the reality of immoral behavior without being explicit. Instead, the sour taste of foul language used as a supposed method for conquering impediments spoils the cleaner moments of humor that pepper this and following therapy sessions in the film.
The “therapeutic” use of offensive language, though a serious problem for Christian moviegoers, is thankfully not suggested as the ultimate reason for Prince Albert’s improvement. Instead, the weight of the story rests on the power of the friendship and love given to Albert by Logue and Elizabeth. This support becomes critical late in the film when Albert’s older brother, King Edward VIII, abdicates his newly claimed thrown in favor of an inappropriate marriage. Edward’s departure is in some ways a blessing, since his philandering ways and plans to marry an already married woman are causing great embarrassment.
To the filmmakers’ credit, Edward’s actions are handled with discretion, as the affair and other extramarital acts of intimacy are only referred to and never shown. (However, even Prince Albert references a time when he was also involved in such immoral behavior, and recounts the episode without a hint of regret or apology.) King Edward becomes so embroiled in his love affair with the married woman, that he would rather abdicate the thrown than give up the relationship. Suddenly, Prince Albert faces the moment he and Elizabeth seem to have never anticipated—he must be King. On the brink of World War II, the pressure could not be greater for Albert to appear strong, unflappable, and smooth of speech for the sake of his people.
At one point in the film, Logue calls Prince Albert the bravest man he ever knew. But as we watch Prince Albert grow and evolve into the worthy King George VI, we see that inner strength is not what enables Albert to conquer the great obstacles before him. He ultimately perseveres and has the courage to face his worst fears because of the love and faith invested in him by his family and closest friend, Logue.
With multiple positive examples of marriage (Logue’s wife is also a faithful pillar of support), friendship, family, and love, The King’s Speech should stand as a triumphant story of strong values and overcoming odds. Instead, the film crumples when it is undercut by the flippant use of offensive language that does more damage than the rest of the film can amend. Even the reduced use of profanities and obscenities in the “cleaned-up” version are enough to make one realize that The King’s Speech does need help, but not the kind that any therapist can offer.
Check out these options instead:
The Young Victoria (GK Films, 2009)
Temple Grandin (HBO Films, 2010)