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Did I Stutter?

A critical review of “King’s Speech”

A word stuck in your throat. A sentence destined to never reach the ears it intended to. No speech therapist could prepare you for this moment. No mother or friend can do it for you. All that is really needed is a few more seconds to finish that word. But who would have thought it could be so difficult to get them to listen? Just to wait and listen. Let a person finish their sentence.

Text: Kyriaki Mallioglou

Images: Lingli Crucq

Impatience, one of the most finely tuned human conditions. Speaking your mind shouldn’t come from a place of fearing to be heard. Instead, it should come with the security that someone will listen. Stuttering or stammering is a speech disorder that influences the flow and fluency of speech. Perhaps you remember childhood friends or a distant cousin who went to a speech therapist. My own recollection of this elusive memory is two quiet siblings; I met them in school and they both stammered while speaking. Years of speech therapy later, you could barely tell that they had such a tough after-school programme. Just like that, their struggle to be heard was forgotten into the past of childhood ailments. However, other children without access to speech therapy are not as lucky. Since speech is such an integral part of our lives, it can be easy to forget that some struggle without help.

King’s Speech, directed by Tom Hooper, hit theatres in 2010 and is definitely one of the most infamous depictions of a speech disorder I have seen in a film. It is important to note that we have come a long way since then in the representation of disorders in movies, yet stammers are often under-represented. Overall, the movie and its content could be seen as an exaggerated interpretation of speech disorders, yet it does make the point of making them be seen.

The Hyperbolic means to an End

The idea of a public struggle is a hyperbolic way of representing the speech disorder. In many ways though, we can say that it is an effective tool in making the viewer sympathise and empathise with stammering. The opening scene of the film shows the main character in the midst of a tense public speaking disaster. Since the movie is set around the 1930s-40s, this spectacle was meant to be George VI’s debut on radio and was broadcasted by the BBC. This opening sequence sets the atmosphere of the film and makes sure the viewer knows that this is a story of uncomfortability and struggle. The distinctiveness of this disorder is what can make it feel so out of place. A stammer can be heard a mile away; people are taught from the very beginning of their lives to make their speech uniform. A stammer is out of place, because we are taught that it is. It is movies like King’s Speech that have the potential to bridge the gap between the lived experience and the taught one.

The movie depicts the specific time period of the Second World War and the events leading up to it. In tandem to this historical alignment, it deeply focuses on the relationship George VI, affectionately called ‘Bertie’, forged with his speech therapist. Lionel Logue’s unorthodox character contrasted all other depictions of speech therapy in the movie. He tried methods that not only addressed the patient’s symptoms, but aimed to humanise a person who was praised as being Godly due to his royal roots. This is where the hyperbolic extreme takes shape: a King, audible to all on radio and unable to produce fluent speech. On a smaller scale, that is what my schoolmates were: two siblings, visible to everyone in their world and keeping quiet to avoid being different.

Lionel Logue is a quirky character in the story. From their very first session, Logue allows Bertie to see past his disorder. A relatively groundbreaking technique was used: Bertie recorded himself reading a passage of Hamlet, while listening to music on earphones. This well-placed distraction allowed him to hear himself give a stammer-free reading, thus digging up the hope he had buried away. Logue’s techniques were different from other therapists because they tackled the roots of the problems rather than the symptoms. Modern therapies for many disorders work on those same principles. In a world where treatments get more accessible and less personalised, it is imperative we remember where we come from. Especially in terms of disorders being visible in our society without the negative stigma that goes with them.

The Representation Machine

Representation in mainstream movies is no small feat. The fact that it took the depiction of a monarch to do so may be a little vexing in the grand scheme, but we must give credit where it is due. The biographical film outlines the life of George VI. He became King in 1936 when his older brother abdicated the throne. While being severely impaired by a stammer he had been trying to repair since childhood, he and his family are suddenly thrust into the limelight. What ensues is a story of difficulties due to the disorder and the publicity that it generated.

The Hollywood machine is what keeps the fire of entertainment burning. When adding a meaningful representation in a movie about something that is not so relatable (like the monarchy), we often find ourselves humanising the subjects and relating struggles back to our own lives. Especially while we see them struggle with real-life issues like stammering and tedious doctor visits. Representation is important because it makes people sentient about practical issues that we would have no access to otherwise.

On a perhaps more visionary note, I would actually like to see more real life stories on speech disorders and the therapy connected to it. Films like Anywhere But Here (1999) and The Miracle Worker (1962) do explore themes of speech and language therapy but the success that King’s Speech had is difficult to ignore. The film won four Oscars and a BAFTA Award along with plenty of other nominations. That level of exposure could have changed people's perceptions on speech disorders and moved us to a point of higher understanding.

Patience and Faith

Existing in a world with so much impatience, I truly believe that we need to learn from such hyperboles. Speech disorder or not, treating others with the respect we expect for ourselves should be an intrinsic way of life for any human being. Moving these fundamentals into practice, I hope to use the representation machine for good and inspire the people around me to do the same. The commercialisation of entertainment can definitely be a bad thing. The thing about films however, much like other forms of art, is that they are up for interpretation. We get to decide what happens after the credits roll and we get to decide what to do with the emotions we have felt, all while working on our empathy and patience.

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