Beware: the king speaks

Nominated for twelve Oscars, fifteen Baftas and seventy three academy nominations in total worldwide, The King’s Speech has undoubtedly awed audiences and critics with stunning cinematography and art direction as well as the authentic, charismatic portrayal of royal relations. As a period piece that represents a slice of history more modern than the usual Austin adaptation, it is intriguing both historically and aesthetically, and though obviously not entirely historically accurate; offers intriguing insight into a troubled public figure.

Despite massive critical acclaim and popularity at the box office, some critics have berated the sympathetic portrayal of the film’s protagonist, seething at the faintest whiff of Royalist sentiment in a film funded by the National Lottery. Perhaps the film can be seen as shedding a compassionate light on the not-so-popular British royal family; of offering a picture of national strength and affinity, as shown in the ending scenes of The King’s Speech showing patriots all over the empire touched by the King’s wartime address. As an event lodged in the consciousness of the nation, a film portraying the supposed camaraderie solidified by World War II could understandably be looked upon with a cynical eye. At a time of economic and political unrest, with the country in a state of disillusionment and disunity – suggestions of The King’s Speech as a unifying offering would not be completely unfounded. However, to suggest that the elegant and vulnerable portrayal of a King sidling up to a ‘common’ speech therapist serves only to venerate the humanity of the royal family is extremely reductive.

Aside from the aforementioned beauty and precision captured in every frame of the picture, The King’s Speech also portrays relationships with a somewhat unseen before affectability; and though the royal protagonist is undoubtedly an aspect that makes the film so attractive; the lens used to focus in on this high profile figure is that of speech. His struggle creates a figure that poetically manages to maintain dignity and masculinity whilst creating overwhelming sympathy, undoubtedly one of the draws of the film. The shifting bond between ‘Bertie’ (Colin Firth) and his Australian speech-come-life-coach Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) is presented with a childlike affection exposing the vulnerability of both men that feels almost real. Helena Bonham Carter offers a strong female supportive role as George’s wife, the future queen mum. However, the topic should not be lost in the individual human aspect, the film draws attention to the overwhelming power and importance of speech.

In a world obsessed by celebrity voyeurism and so used to being addressed by public figures on television sets, radio and online it is possible to lose sight of the fact that speech is so artfully and often manipulatively constructed. The King’s Speech offers an insight into the hidden world of public speaking.

Professor Albert Mehrabian of The University of California has been a leading expert in understanding communication since the 1960’s; his ‘communications model’ suggests that only seven per cent of meaning is communicated in the actual words that are spoken. 38 percent of the influence of the spoken word is gleaned from paralinguistic factors (the way that the words are said) and an astonishing 55 percent in body language and facial expression. This statistic exposes the astoundingly hollow nature of language. If it is the way things are said that gives them impact – it is no surprise that empty political promises are so easily accepted when delivered with vehemence and an empathetic smile.

The King’s Speech illuminates a figurehead unable to grasp these communicative abilities and therefore unable to assert his authority. Perhaps it is worrying then, that his merits are only fully recognised when he can finally harness the non-syntactic power of speech – rather than his power being inherent in his words.

The idea of ‘putting on a show’ is key to public opinions in an age where increasingly feeling an affinity with those otherwise unreachable figureheads is key. From voting for a politician whose demeanour suggests he ‘really understands’ to supporting a singing contestant not for their vocal abilities but for their well considered, constructed and contrived public appearance (addled with the all-important sob story.)

The King’s Speech, whilst offering a sympathetic and endearing portrayal of a public figure of nobility offers an insight into the way the public view voices of authority, and the reasons why they do so. From the 1930’s to the present day, the public’s collective eyes and ears have been manipulated by well choreographed acts and voices. The King’s Speech, rather than creating Royalist sympathisers, offers a take on public speaking and public impressionability that is just as, if not more prevalent today, with the evolution of audio and now visual technological phenomena.

Importance must return to the meaning of the spoken word itself; rather than to the distracting spectacle in which it becomes embroiled.

Beware the speaker.


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