As I was watching The King’s Speech written by David Seidler, it occurred to me that the script was based on the familiar rules that we all learn as beginners.
We all learn that drama is conflict and that our main character should conquer some obstacle. Ok, so this main character doesn’t have to slay a dragon or vanquish an alien being. He has a stammer. The problem is embarrassing, but not life threatening. Stuff for a TV movie perhaps? Not in the hands of the screenwriter, David Seidler. Seidler has created such sympathetic characters that we care very much that the stammer is overcome.
First of all, the story isn’t about some nice guy who wants to be able to chat easily at work; this guy is a royal. He is the younger son of George V of Great Britain, the Duke of York, called Bertie. He is expected to speak in public, and his attempts to do so are so cringe-worthy that soon into the film we are on his side. We really, really want him to be able to speak well. The fact that he’s a privileged royal simply won’t help him in this situation. The setup makes us want to know what happens next.
He’s tried several doctors who have a variety of silly treatments that don’t work. Then a certain therapist is recommended. Not only is the therapist a commoner — from Australia no less — he doesn’t have any actual credentials. All he has is some gritty hands-on experience that seemed to have worked on shell-shocked soldiers in World War I. So here’s some conflict. Both men have something to gain and something to lose. Moreover, it is a multi-layered conflict. Not only do they grapple with the emotional problem of the stammer, they are two characters from two different levels of society who need to understand and trust each other in order to find a solution. It’s an unequal balance, which makes for some very funny moments and opportunities for Seidler’s amusing dialogue. Now we want both men to succeed, but that doesn’t appear easy. Bertie has to be willing to shed some of his strict rules of behavior and open his world view. It has implications for his future, as well as for the future of Great Britain.
Then the stakes get higher. Bertie’s brother abdicates for the love of the twice-married American, Wallis Simpson, and Bertie is to become king. Now he no longer represents just his family, he must speak for the entire British Empire — at a time when the country will surely be going to war against Hitler. Talk about pressure… The way Seidler has written him, we have no doubt that he will be a good king, but we do worry and wonder if he will be able to speak understandably on the radio.
So, without digital effects or bloody battle scenes, layers of personal and historical conflict come into play. If you’ve ever seen newsreels or photos of the public figures involved with World War II, you will be captivated by the best of British actors who take on the personas of the well-known figures.
There is an “old-fashioned” quality to the film: it seems to be straightforward, told in chronological order without special effects or fancy editing. No cutting-edge style, but what appears almost simplistic at first, becomes complex. This is an intelligent film with layers of information and opportunities to learn some history, but it is first and foremost a story of one character whose pluck and courage help him beat the odds.
Did you read David S. Cohen’s interview with David Seidler in the January/February, 2011 issue of Script? If so, you know that it took Seidler years and many changes (including rewriting it for the stage) before it was produced for the screen. He did a lot of research and included his own personal issues with stammering into the mix. In the end, he has created a coherent and involving story with a particular and specific view of British history and one king’s issues, but which resonates in a universal way.
It is beautifully filmed and the acting is Oscar-worthy. Colin Firth manages to be very royal and also very vulnerable at the same time, and Geoffrey Rush’s arrogant but sensitive character provides a perfect foil.
The success of the film is proof that those basic screenwriting rules do work — but it’s also an example of the talent it takes to create more than a paint-by-numbers project. From the clever concept to the well-drawn characters to the historic detail to the smart dialogue, Seidler has written a film that is moving, informative, and that easily engages a broad audience. But most of all, it is an accessible and emotionally satisfying journey.