Friday, January 7, 2011

"The King's Speech"

I found a seat in a sold-out theater to see The King’s Speech tell the story of King George VI’s life-long struggle to overcome stuttering. In his struggle, the future king--Bertie to his friends--accepts the friendship and tutelage of a commoner, Lionel Logue. Both men, as portrayed in the film, are remarkable and courageous. Their story should remind us of the power of empathy and understanding as well as the amazing courage with which millions face their days.

As the film begins, Bertie’s wife, the future Queen Elizabeth, managing her husband’s medical treatment, finds and interviews speech specialists. She is present during most treatments, and she fully supports her husband’s decisions not to continue. As portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter, Queen Elizabeth loves her man and understands that he has a voice worth hearing, a voice worth finding.

Geoffrey Rush creates Lionel Logue, Bertie’s patient, clever, and brash mentor, a man who also cares deeply about the King’s voice. His methods may be intuitive and unorthodox, but his motives are never self-serving. His empathy is palpable in many scenes, and it is instrumental in healing the King’s speech.

The King himself, as interpreted by Colin Firth, learns a bit about empathy himself in his first encounter with the commoner Logue. He also demonstrates great courage. First, he cares about his nation, empire, and duties as a leader capable of inspiring his subjects. In fact, he cares so much that he refuses to accept his stutter. Second, he endures a bit of bullying by his father in an effort to live up to the demands and duties of king. His brother, Edward, the future Duke of Windsor, is worse. He mocks and humiliates Bertie, yet Bertie tries to honor the line of succession and his king, the older brother.

Third, Bertie proves his courage when he returns to Logue’s version of therapy, defends Logue against the powerful archbishop, and steps into the broadcast booth when he must announce, as King George VI, that Britain is at war. In spite of fear--of failure and of continual humiliations--he faces down his demons and the microphone to deliver a deliberate, clearly enunciated speech.

His courage honors the courage of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who return maimed, yet they sally forth as knights, learning to walk with and on titanium. They endure the pain to build upper body strength enough to lift themselves in and out of wheelchairs, to propel them up and down basketball courts, to ski down mountains, and to run marathons. If they return with Traumatic Brain Injury, they and their families fight for their own voices, asking that the nation not forget, that the nation find the funds to give these veterans a voice.

The 9-11 First Responders’ sacrifice is as monstrous and heroic as veterans’. They did not hesitate to rush in to chaos and dare death itself. They remained, trusting the authorities when they played down the toxicity of Ground Zero. Then, they became sick-too sick to work; they lost their health insurance as well as their health. Many lost their lives. Still they struggled to speak--for nine long years. Their voices were faint, soft, lost in the chaos of patriotic fervor, but in December 2010, they found a voice. The nation granted them aid, promising not to forget.

When you stumble across courage, when you summon your own courage, when you witness courage portrayed on film or stage, consider the unimaginable acts of courage undertaken for the greater good: the whistle-blowers who want our food and medicines to be safe; the soldiers who do their duty; the teachers who shape our future and believe in our kids; the kings who overcome. Consider also the ordinary individual with a missing arm, an artificial leg, a stutter, or scars; the individual who must use a service dog to navigate the world; the frail elderly who needs a helping hand. Prove your own courage by not turning aside. Prove your empathy. It has the power to heal.