28 December 2010

The King's Speech

There is a certain collection of literature I feel is important for people seeking to understand "disability" in a deep way. This includes books like Borderlinersand The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, films including Edward Scissorhandsand Rory O'Shea Was Hereand plays like The Elephant Man... Anyway, there are not many. Most suggest either "cure" or evoke the notion of "supercrip" and I despise both of those tropes.

But I watched The King's Speech this week and immediately added it to the list. Yes, the context... the British Royal Family... is far from most of our experience, but only one level of the film is "royal/historical" (though that is a very fine level indeed, with some fascinating attempts at insight into both the Queen Elizabeths of our age). The other level is a much more common tale. A tale of disability and bullying, powerlessness and power, perseverance and the high costs of being seen as a success.

"Bertie Windsor" is mocked and abused because he cannot do "the expected" easily. This occurs at the hands of the father who loves him and desperately wants him to succeed, and at the hands of those - including his older brother - who simply enjoy feeling superior. He is mistreated by quack "healers" - wait for the marbles scene - and made to feel as if he is somehow less than human, royal birthright or not.

This film is not a tale of triumph. Yes, George VI becomes a beloved monarch who did much for his nation at its time of greatest peril, but that is not the point of the film, or of this man's life. Rather it is a story of fear, of loneliness, of desperation, of effort, and yes, of cost. Becoming what others want/need him to be is a mountain which "Bertie" must scale, and it is a climb which injures him in permanent ways. As the film The Queen puts it, [Tony Blair on Elizabeth II] "That woman has given her whole life in service to her people. Fifty years doing a job SHE never wanted! A job she watched kill her father."

And it is not a tale of "cure" either, though Geoffrey Rush's Lionel Logue uses that term. Bertie needs "accommodations" his whole life - in the form of the personal and constant efforts of Logue at every speech. He needs - in the media of the time - to be seen much more than heard.  It never gets easy, it never gets solved, and Bertie battles his "issues" his whole life.

When you watch the film, when you watch Colin Firth's face as he struggles, as he is humiliated, see the faces of all the children in our schools who find themselves struggling, with speech, with reading, with writing. And stop telling them to "try harder" and reach out with the individual helps they need. And accept that they are fully human, even if they never will quite do things as you do.

- Ira Socol


Miss Shuganah said...

When I was seventeen, I was a Freshman at University of Iowa taking an Introduction to Philosophy class. It's a moment I'd prefer to forget. The TA was calling on people, row by row, to introduce themselves. Just really say our name. Because of where I was seated in the room, I knew he wasn't going to get to me until about last. So I felt frozen in anticipation of having to answer. My turn. "What's your name," he demanded.

I couldn't answer. "What's the matter," he barked. "Cat got your tongue?"

I couldn't answer. He must have thought, who is this idiot who cannot even speak her own name?

After a moment I did. I blurted out in a voice that sounded unnatural, "Debbie." And immediately wanted to crawl under a rock or find some way to disappear.

I never talk about it. I stammer. I think it happens when my brain anticipating an answer, races ahead of the mechanism needed to produce speech. I also stammer when I am angry or frustrated.

Doesn't help that I always thought I had a horrible speaking voice. Also doesn't help that I am thrown towards shyness in unfamiliar situations.

When I am tired or stressed, I end up talking as if I had just come over the boat. My syntax reflects my Eastern European ancestry.

Add in what I consider poet's brain, random phrases that may make for good poetry, but hardly intelligible in ordinary conversation, and one can understand why I prefer written communication over spoken. I can sit at a computer monitor and compose myself and my thoughts. I can communicate uninterrupted. No one will finish my sentences for me. My language will be precise. My ideas will be well thought out. Most importantly, I am more at ease.

Unknown said...

Firth did a brilliant job with this movie. I was impressed at how understated and perfect Rush was as well, given some of his more flamboyant roles in the past. I know your blog is more about the content than the movie glamour, but I was impressed by so many aspects of this film, including the often-overacting Helena Bonham-Carter as the Queen Mum. Parfait. We really got to see Albert as a human being, hot-tempered and caring and dedicated.

E.A. said...

Many thanks Ira for the blog on this film - it reaches us (in the UK) on 7th Jan and with my Speech Therapy hat on, I cannot wait to go and see it. Happy New Year and take care in 2011.

Best wishes E.A.