Tuesday, January 7, 2014

It's Choreography!

What makes a film a work of art? First-rate writing, acting, music, direction, cinematography, and editing must meld to make a beautiful film. All of those components come together in the remarkable movie, The King’s Speech. It is a stunning composition.

As I watched it the first time in the theater I realized: It’s choreography! All the parts interact gracefully. And they lead, ultimately, to a dramatic duet performed by the speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), and his subject, King George VI (Colin Firth). All that precedes that performance makes the dance possible.

Choreography involves three basics: music, movement, and a message. Consider Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker or Bernstein’s West Side Story. Both integrate music and movement; and they tell a story. All three fundamentals are present
in The King’s Speech.

Incidental music—composed, conducted, and produced by Alexandre Desplat—interprets and enhances scenes throughout the film. But excerpts from compositions by Mozart and Beethoven, at key moments in the drama, are even more evocative. More about the music as we move along.

The catalyst for the dance is a speech attempted by Prince Albert, Duke of York, in 1925. He is to deliver a message from his Father, King George V (Michael Gambon), at the closing ceremony of the Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium in London. The arena is packed with more than 100,000 British subjects from fifty-eight colonies and dominions. Additional millions are listening on wireless sets via the BBC. As the Prince stammers through his opening lines, the audience that includes his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) feels his humiliation. So the Duchess sets out to find a therapist for her husband.

Lionel Logue, a commoner from Australia, comes highly recommended—though his methods are unorthodox and controversial. When Elizabeth meets the therapist, Logue tells her that he can cure the Prince; but there must be trust and total equality in the safety of his consultation room, no exceptions. Logue takes the lead when he meets the Prince, insisting that they use first names: Lionel and Bertie. He also gains the couple’s confidence by cleverly demonstrating that Bertie’s stammer isn’t innate. Yet, Bertie and Elizabeth insist that the therapist work solely on “mechanical difficulties.”

So the dance begins with a montage of sessions featuring physical exercises directed by Logue. The scene is dance-like, for Bertie mirrors Lionel’s actions. Lionel is loose, while Bertie is reserved and tense. Segments of a speech given by Bertie, where he tries the techniques he is learning, is interspersed. And the music is an excerpt from the opening movement of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto—meaningful to me because I spent months practicing and performing that concerto as an undergraduate. This scene also foreshadows profound moments to come.

Bertie’s relationship with Lionel takes a more personal turn after King dies in January 1936. Grief prompts him to show up at Logue’s office. So Lionel welcomes the Prince: “Do you feel like working today?” Bertie conveys that he wants to talk. After Lionel expresses his condolences, the Prince comments, “I was informed after the fact that my father’s last words were, ‘Bertie has more guts than the rest of his brothers put together.’” Smiling ironically, he adds, “He couldn’t say that to my face.”

Bertie also mentions his older brother, David (Guy Pearce), who has become King Edward VIII. Lionel invites Bertie to pursue his thought, but he can’t get the words out. So the therapist invites him to sing what he wants to say. Gradually Bertie talks about his relationship with David and other members of the royal household. Pertinent details emerge that explain his stammer: his father’s sternness, correction to become right-handed, ill treatment by his first nanny.

The dance breaks off during a period when Bertie realizes that David’s relationship with the commoner and divorcĂ©e, Mrs. Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), could force David to abdicate. Bertie would become king even as Hitler threatens all of Europe.

So Bertie tells Lionel, “I know my place! I’ll do anything to keep my brother on the throne.” Yet, Lionel challenges: “If you had to, you could outshine David.” Bertie retorts that the suggestion borders on treason. But Lionel persists: “I’m just saying you could be king. You could do it!” Bertie doesn’t need to be governed by fear. But the Prince resists: “I’ve had enough of this.” As Lionel persists, Bertie balks: “You’re the disappointing son of a brewer! A jumped-up jackeroo from the outback! You’re nobody. These sessions are over!”

In time, David steps down; so Bertie becomes King George VI. Once again the pressures prompt him to go back to Lionel. As the dance resumes, Bertie laments that all he has to offer his nation is two minutes of radio silence. He can’t even give them a Christmas speech—like his father used to. But Lionel assures him that his father is gone. He doesn’t have to carry him, or his brother, around any more. “You’re very much your own man, Bertie.”

As they rehearse for the coronation in May of 1937, another obstacle to their relationship arises. I’ll save that segment and the rest of the film for readers to relish without further explanation—except to comment on the choreography of the climax: its music, movement, and message.

The director’s (Tom Hooper) choice of an excerpt from the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was brilliant.[1] I treasure that composition. It conveys both dread and determination. The King dreads making speeches, and his people are apprehensive about their future. Yet, the King is determined to face his fears and to lead his people against Hitler’s aggression. The music is part of what prompted me to see the film as choreography. The interaction between therapist and King is the other part. Lionel conducts Bertie’s performance.

What is the message of that scene? Commoner and King can work together as therapist and client. Throughout the story, Lionel lovingly listens to Bertie; and he seeks to understand and help him. Bertie cautiously cooperates. So we witness the crowning glory of their work together.

A final note about coarse language in the film may be helpful. From time to time Lionel encourages Bertie to use street language to loosen his tongue. In my opinion the vulgarity is not gratuitous. Rather, it accurately represents the counseling relationship in this situation. Yet, some viewers may find it offensive.

The King’s Speech is a work of art, which, by nature, exudes beauty in a variety of ways. I commend this film, hopeful that others will experience their own sense of its glory.

[1] The aftermath is also effectively accompanied by an excerpt from the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, popularly known as the Emperor Concerto. Another of my favorites, Crown Imperial by Sir William Walton, was composed for the coronation of King George VI. 


  1. Nice post Stan. I can't help but think of the elements of a good Sunday morning message (sermon). Movement and message are critical, as is the music bracketing the message - it may not be exactly what we find in movies, but we should be painting a picture for our people and inviting them in as participants. A good communicator is an artist...I think.

  2. I agree. Thanks for your thoughts, Bob