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  • Writer's pictureMarc Roudebush

The Content of the King's Speech

King George VI, played by Colin Firth, addressing the British Empire at the start of World War II (and not stammering)

"The King's Speech" is more than a historical drama.

Yes, it is the true story of Prince Albert, Duke of York, and his (successful) struggle to overcome an acute stammer as he accedes to the British throne (as King George VI) just as the war against Hitler began.

And yes, it is a funny and engaging reflection on social distinctions in the Petri dish of an unlikely relationship--that of  "His Royal Highness" with an extra-ordinary (not to say "common") therapist, with whom he forms a lifelong friendship, after overcoming monumental class barriers.

But, to me, this is also a universal (and therefore contemporary) story: the "hero's journey" of a man confronting deep, unconscious forces in himself, and along a rough road of self-acceptance, finding his voice, his ability to love, and his personal "sovereignty"--that is, his ability to lead himself and others in meaningful action (in this case against Hitler's aggression).

Colin Firth's performance, accurately described in this NYT review, is worthy of such a universal story:

Mr. Firth’s portrayal of a buttoned-up aristocrat who is literally twitching in his skin, is a tour de force of body language concentrated on the eyes and mouth. Even as his voice and expression change from haughty to defiant to despairing, Mr. Firth’s Bertie strives to maintain a lofty demeanor.

With the help of Firth's vivid depiction of "Bertie's" inner struggle, we are able to retrace our own struggles with unwelcome, unconscious forces in our lives. Personally, I have never stammered. But I have known the difficulty of finding my voice, and can relate to the mental clenching that seems to dictate the Duke's speech defect. Who has not felt the surprising and frustrating impact of unconscious fear?  And who cannot admire Firth's character when he finds the courage to look inward and finally let in the trust, vulnerability, and hope that are his way out.

The surprising denouement of the film is not so much a triumphal march, as a walking meditation. During this final scene, the boundaries separating the king from his humanity seem to fall away. He hugs his daughter, and humbly asks "how did I do?" (she replies, "It was a bit halting in the beginning but then it got better, Daddy"); he acknowledges the cheering crowd from his balcony with compassion (and conviction) in his eyes; he deeply acknowledges Lionel Logue--formerly a threat to his dignity, now his true friend and champion.

This is why I assert that the real content of the King's Speech for us, today, is an invitation to stand against the forces of aggression and impatience in ourselves, and to find the compassion and courage to speak our truth, and take meaningful action in our lives. As it happens, these are the same qualities that will help you create an inspiring workplace... and that an inspiring workplace will, in turn, evoke in you and your colleagues.

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