I recently watched The King’s Speech (2010) for the first time. Despite it being a major faux pas to blog about a media event in a way that is neither timely, topical, nor otherwise trendy, I feel compelled to do it anyway. Because this movie is basically an extended paean on the social life of language.
Those who have seen it probably walked away with the same general sense—I remember when it came out that it was immediately regarded among colleagues as relevant and sophisticated, a kind of classy linguistics porn. This is partially due to the central storyline revolving around an infamous stammer from which even royalty is not immune. But I was impressed with how the film overall encourages a nuanced rethinking of speech pathology, and looks hard at the context-bound, emergent nature of semiotic practices in general. It packs in a dense array of micro-studies in sociolinguistic subtopics. So dense that I’ll dispense with worrying about my own narrative arc and break into some themed bulletpoints.
[First, here’s a quick rundown of character genealogy, which is also essentially the plot, so that I can jump around without confusion; skip to the first bullet if you remember well enough or know your royal history: Patriarch King George V has two sons; the older is the Duke of Wales, heir apparent, who when George V dies becomes King Edward VIII. But Edward VIII doesn’t want to be king because he’d rather marry his fabulous American girlfriend Wallis Simpson, who is inconveniently married to a living husband and has already divorced a previous, also living, ex-husband. This doesn’t fly at court so he abdicates in order to elope and takes the made-up-for-his-first-ever-crazy-circumstances title Duke of Windsor, leaving the throne to his younger brother, nickname Bertie, title Duke of York, later King George VI.]
- THE MATERIALITY OF SIGNS AND BODIES.
Early in the film, the exquisite Helena Bonham Carter (HBC)—playing the Dutchess of York who later rises to be Queen Elizabeth (she was the IRL Queen Mum during my childhood)—explains that her husband, the inimitable Mr. Darcy (okay, it’s Colin Firth aka the Duke of York-cum-King George VI) only needs treatment for his stammer insofar as it is a “mechanical problem.”
[Side note: it was immediately interesting to note that “stammer” is the preferred term in the registers of British English deployed in the film; “stutter” is more common in the US, and there are national societies that choose to use that term.]
(the actual matter at hand)
HBC and Mr. D are adamant that the treatment for stammering, like any medical prescription, address the physical symptoms of a physical problem. They explicitly want to avoid engaging on a personal or emotional level with the quirky speech therapist they have contracted as a last resort (Lionel Logue, played by the God among Humans Geoffrey Rush), who is also several million social stations below them. In fact, his particular brand of unconventionality resides precisely in his requirement of intimacy and social leveling–as mediated through terms of address and participation frameworks–as part of the treatment he applies; the inane technical nature of previous (unsuccessful) treatments from palace doctors has perhaps even reassured the royal patient that they were more scientific (“they’re sterilized!” says one tuxedoed quack while instructing Mr. D to place many large glass marbles in his mouth).
Logue abides in order to lock down the royalest client his dingy flat has ever seen. Comical calisthenics ensue. They do not, of course, result in any immediate breakthroughs. There are some interesting physical tricks that Mr. D develops as bandaids: stepping or bouncing into a trouble word, waltzing, cursing and singing. The latter two aren’t appreciably “more” physical than uttering words in general, but for the sake of moving on, I’ll just say I think of them as both deeply grounded in the body in their respective ways.
G-Rush expertly gives off an expression throughout the months of core-exercise hijinks that cries “I’ll do what you want, but I know better.” [IRL, Logue’s treatment yielded significant results in less than a year, rather than the drawn out span of years that the movie gives us for dramatic effect.] Logue’s internalized knowledge, gleaned from intuition and personal experience with traumatized patients rather than formal training, that which sets his practice apart from what was no doubt a highly behaviorist-dominated field at the time, is slowly revealed: IT IS HOW YOU THINK OF YOURSELF AS A SPEAKER IN THE WORLD—not your larynx or lip muscles or diaphragm—THAT WANTS TREATING.
[To some degree, we see the sheer ridiculousness of these physical exercises and tongue twisters work to erode some of the social boundaries that lock up Mr. Darcy King of the Future. But he clings to his social distance throughout the movie—the sincerity of his friendship (or lack thereof, when he’s of a mood) with Logue constitutes a core plot dimension that runs inseparably parallel to his progress in de-stammering himself.]
This sets up a sort of chiasmus: we are meant to see the flaw in physicalizing or biologizing what is more of a psychosocial matter, but the film is also designed to play with the concept of “voice,” in the more abstract psychosocial sense, as being intricately and crucially embodied.
You could also see this as the dance between the representamen of the stammer and its potential object(s) in the Peircian triadic model of signs.
Moreover, we see as Mr. Darcy moves around his (historically reconstructed) social world how his condition, at once physical and psychosocial, gets different uptakes. He gets the man-to-man sympathies of Churchill (but really, what was the Bulldog doing at these royal broadcasting events other than being someone an American viewer would recognize?) but also there’s the bullying of brother/abdicator/would-be Gatsby/Nazi sympathizer King Edward VIII-cum-Duke of Windsor.
And there we have our interpretants.
It is worth noting that, IRL, Winston Churchill was actually more supportive of Edward VIII at that point in time. Winnie had to later earn the respect of Charles VI (aka Mr. Darcy for my purposes here and in my mind forever) by exhibiting wartime savvy, but his role such as it is in the film is crucial: he demonstrates briefly how solidarities and alignments can emerge in the social matrix surrounding semiotic practices that may be pathologized in some contexts.
A spotlight on the state of the field:
Plenty of linguistic anthropologists do cool stuff with multimodal, i.e., more-than-just-words semiotics, but over the summer I discovered that some of them are trying to rally this work into a new movement/subfield called materialist semiotics. It is NOT to be confused with Marxist materialism! (Drat!) It is meant to emphasize the materiality of the sign, whether that comes with a political agenda or not. Which offers up a great occasion to coin a sexier term by adding a “the new” before it (cf. example that’s actually kind of new, and example that’s isn’t actually doing anything new–I think there’s a little of both going on in this case).
Here are some samples from “the new” materialist semioticians:
Making a case for a new materialism team in lx anthro: http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520272156
Bottoms up: (best lx anthro read of the summer/year/decade) http://www.amazon.com/Semiotics-Drink-Drinking-Bloomsbury-Advances/dp/1441160183
- MEDIA & TECHNOLOGY:
–Logue uses a gramophone to print an indexical icon (i.e., make an identical physical record) of Mr. D reciting the (“The”) Hamlet monologue without any stammering. Darc is able to do so because he generates the speech at the same time that he is listening to loud music on headphones. The recording enables a listener to extract one channel of communication from the full array in which it had to be co-produced. The record lingers through time (albeit hidden in a drawer for what seem to be years) as an enduring physical sign of the patient’s potential to improve–even if actually replicating such clear, fluid speech would still require the aid of distractingly loud music. And that is where technology comes in, allowing a change/distortion of perspective in the semiotic chain. I also enjoyed how this scene demonstrated the power of trans-modal manipulation, which is to say that modes of communication (e.g., talk, music, text, video, etc.) don’t just get stacked up as discrete, modular units when they are joined together in time and co-text; they “talk” to each other, affect each other, affect the meanings made overall. Music+speech was not just music and speech, it created music+speech 2.0. (I know this is more of a psychological than a semiotic process in the film but I still thought it was cool!)
–For FDR, readily-available photographs were the technology-enabled PR stumbling stone to fear. George VI (heretofore referred to as Mr. Darcy, but I just hit my wall with that one-woman inside joke) had to face down the introduction of wireless microphones, making live speech possible in countless new contexts and therefore more in demand. Had he risen to the throne one hundred years earlier, perhaps nobody would’ve been the wiser to his stammer. But that’s a messy Butterfly Effect road to go down with this film—that Logue has had his epiphany about speech and social life is dependent on his witnessing of the post-traumatic condition of soldiers returning from the trenches of the first World War. Indeed, the backdrop of the war, and the sense of rapid technological and social change in general, seems to serve as another layer of meaning suturing speech to sociality: as the monarchy proverbially and literally stammers its way through, Europe moves from one World War to an even more evil one (and almost doesn’t make it in on the right side of history under Edward VIII’s watch).
–This goes back to the discussion on materiality. Upon seeing George VI for the first time after his coronation, his young daughters Elizabeth (the current Queen IRL) and Margaret must quash their excited expressions into reserved ones as they deliver their first awkward, instilled-but-not-yet-automatic curtseys to greet him properly as “Your Royal Highness” (more on address terms below). This “style” is newly necessary thanks to the coronation speech-act. But more than that, the film foregrounds this gestural moment in all its honorific rituality to serve as a plot vehicle in the broader symbolic field; it ushers in a clear turning point. There is so much meta-semiotic awareness going on in this film.
–Tea service: Logue strategically uses it’s various stages (build a fire, boil, steep, pour, sip) to control the turns at talk during his first consultation with George VI, the then-Duke of York, and also uses it to set a certain convivial tone. Then, after the Duke becomes King, Queen HBC insists on serving herself tea to allow the men to get to their work when a speechifying deadline looms. It’s a move that I found endearing because it seems like strategic essentialism with respect to her femininity—as if to say “of course I know how to serve tea! I was a young lady once….”—but works in the service of subverting class and rank hierarchies that demand Logue serve the tea to his utter superior, not leave an honored guest in his home sitting alone.
- NAMES AND ADDRESS TERMS:
And you “are created” noble [title X of place Y, e.g., Duke of Windsor]–not created “as” something, just “created Marquis of Sade” or what have you. It’s like when you “are graduated” from a university (if you feel like putting on those airs to speak suchly…which all the editors of Wikipedia pages about British nobility emphatically do), except we typically do not say one “is graduated Bachelor of Arts” or some such–but there’s a first time for everything! #whoneedsprescriptivegrammar
Wallis Simpson was created Dutchess of Windsor (styled merely as Her Grace, indicative of a non-royal background, rather than Her Highness, although her friends and servants were rumored to use the latter in minor acts of creepy treason around the house) after marrying the freshly abdicated Duke of Windsor. But before getting to that point, she’d smashed into the rigidity of this system; the royal advisors refused her the title (and therefore the actual position) of queen, or even of king’s consort, given her history of divorce and egregious Americanness. Her spurned ambitions left her so bitter that she was driven to a life of hobnobbing with (and allegedly leaking war secrets to) Nazi sympathizers. Which is to say, a life of being a Nazi sympathizer. That said, I highly recommend that everyone read her Wikipedia page in full. She was clearly an extraordinary woman, whatever else she was, with the ability to traverse worldwide communicative repertoires (or perhaps simply speak in the universal language of one who is the life of the party).
–I noticed immediately how HBC and George VI demonstrate a properly-dated version of received pronunciation (is the Queen actually speaking the Queen’s English?). Not that I know for certain that it is proper for the time, but it certainly sounded more ornamented and pinched than more recent iterations, such as those found on BBC adaptations of Austen novels. :P
–Logue’s Australian accent is not very marked, with respect to the Anglocentric dialects around him, beyond its class-based inflections. If this is intentional (and my guess is that every bit of articulation in this film is intentional), it would seem it is partly because he has lived in England for some years but perhaps also because Australian English hadn’t yet diverged as much from the commonwealth yet? Anyone familiar with Australian English phonology/dialectology? What I mean is, to invoke a sort of abstract dialect spectrum concept, that Australian Englishes are often more distinctive from British ones these days, and I am quite sure that G-Rush would’ve been up to the task of donning one hell of an oz accent if he’d wanted to.
–Wallis Simpson’s Americanese makes a brief appearance, reeking of sexual liberation and gold-diggery, and inviting social slights like when HBC skips greeting her altogether (perhaps the issue of address terms seemed too upsetting?).
- EXPLICIT PERFORMATIVE SPEECH ACTS
— The big ones: coronation, abdication.
— When Dumbledore (Charles V, father to Mark His Royal Highness the Darcy the King George VI the Duke of York) is shown in the dementia-d last days of his life, his “caretaker” (either the conniving Archbishop of Canterbury or a physician or someone else, I can’t remember) reads to him a letter that grants his heir apparent the royal version of power of attorney. The letter’s contents are being recited with great formality at this ancient man hunched in his wheelchair, even as he voices that he doesn’t understand what they are saying, literally while they read on over his voice, ignoring his complaints. The scene unfolds in a room of witnesses–to the reading and the protests, but the latter are not duly ratified apparently. The caretaker holds Dumbledore’s hand to physically guide him in signing the letter, and voilà—we have a felicitous speech act. The danger of a senile king at the helm—with Hitler in office and stirring—outweighs all the procedural malfunctions in said king’s participation in this speech act. I’d like to see Austin or Searle or any lx pragmatist create a taxonomy of speech acts (as they love to do) that accounts for this kind of stuff.
- IN CONCLUSION:
Although it was a big deal for authority to pass from father to son in that case, and even moreso for it to pass from brother to brother later on, at one point toward the end of the film George VI harps on the purely symbolic nature of the monarch in the parliamentary era: he can’t levee a tax, he can’t pass a law. But what he says can hold a great deal of weight.
“Why? Because the nation thinks that when I speak, I speak for them.”
So what does it mean if his speech (his manner of speaking, and the speechifying event of giving a formal “speech”) is a big fat mess? It means symbolism! Iconic symbols smashing together in a nice eponymous double entendre laden with sociopolitical metaphor!
In the end, the moral that Logue offers is that all George VI needs is a “friend who will listen” to him. Not a royal subject, not an advisor, certainly not an overbearing father or libertine brother, but a friend. And it goes without saying that the role of friend can only be authentically inhabited by a listener who doesn’t judge or pathologize or condescend to the speaker. It’s not exactly about the healing power of friendship (although of course, it’s that too); it strikes me as being mostly about the enduring human need to have (a) voice.
The film closes with a triumphant radio address, delivered to near perfection by King Darcy (but not total perfection, as he jokes, so that they believe it was actually him). Logue serves ably as the sincere, face-to-face, human listener, i.e. interlocutor-interpretantizer that the king needed to complete the speech chain—more than he needed a detached, mass mediated audience, which he needed at that point in his personal development about as much as a Nazi invasion.
We see Logue’s wife and son smiling proudly as they hear the product of their husband’s/father’s fine work; we see Queen HBC crying tears of joy and little not-yet-IRL-Queen Elizabeth looking exuberant. They are moved by, and listening intently to, the elocution, but not the denotation of Charles VI’s speech, or else they probably wouldn’t be rejoicing: he is announcing the details of the nation’s declaration of war on Germany. It’s an ugly business, that game of thrones, but less so if you too can talk pretty one day.
And, so as not to end this post on such a snarky note, I leave off stating that there is SO much more to be said about the stunning cinematography in this film. It engenders the unique voice of the film itself, through tone-matched semiotic acts of framing, color, texture, angle, depth of field. It does storytelling while managing to be elegantly self-aware of the inner workings of its own elocutions.