The voice is elusive. Once you’re eliminated everything that is not the voice itself – the body that houses it, the words it carries, the notes it sings, the traits by which it defines a speaking person, and the timbres that colour it, what’s left? What a strange object, what grist for poetic outpourings…
– Michael Chion, The Voice in Cinema (1998)
Typically overlooked in film analysis in preference of explorations of music or sound, the voice in cinema is, as Michael Chion elaborates throughout his influential text, ‘a strange object’. Belonging exclusively to neither the mind nor body, the voice exists in an indeterminate space, drifting between self and other. As a verbal signifier, the voice contributes to the construction of identity and yet it remains a curiously disembodied object apart from the subject. The King’s Speech is a film entirely concerned with the voice and the power of the spoken word.
Based on events from the life of King George VI, The King’s Speech focuses upon the relationship between the then named Prince Albert (Colin Firth) and his Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), in the years leading up to his ascension to the throne and the declaration of war with Germany. Following a succession of failed attempts at overcoming his debilitating stammer, Albert hesitantly engages Logue’s unorthodox methods in order to arrest control of his voice.
While the therapeutic sessions between Albert and Lionel drive the film’s narrative, The King’s Speech also presents a fascinating sub-textual exploration of the voice, specifically in its relationship to technology. In the opening scene of the film – Albert’s humiliating Empire Exhibition address at Wembley Stadium in 1925 – images of the large generators and amplifiers that will carry his words across the globe are interspersed with the shots of the Prince. Technology and humanity (represented through Alfred’s pitiful vocal stutter) are initially defined in opposition to one another.
However, in both the film’s opening and again at the end, The King’s Speech isolates the microphone as the central object within this struggle. Shot in a series of looming close-ups, the microphone initially stands as a sign of a dehumanising and impersonal technological evolution. The repeated advisements given to Albert to “let the microphone do the work” make clear that technology holds the power. Signifying his fear of public speaking (and lack of self confidence) the image of the microphone dramatises a reversal of the traditional authority between subject and object.
Beyond the personal though, the thematic interplay surrounding Albert’s voice in The King’s Speech draws attention to the influence of technology upon broader hierarchies of power, specifically those associated with the monarchy. Recalling a bygone era when the royal family needed only appear in uniformed attire to convey a regal presence, Albert’s father (King George V) laments that the advent of radio broadcasts has reduced the royal family to the mere status of ‘actors’. Power, it seems, is no longer the gift of birthright but the product of performance.
The implication that authority has become vested in the spoken word and not in appearance or title also works to align Lionel with Albert throughout the film. While unequal in terms of caste, the pair are both impaired by their speech: Albert through his stammer and Lionel (who moonlights as an amateur thespian) by his Australian accent, a timbre unsuited to the ‘British’ Shakespearean plays for which he auditions. Despite his ‘great diction’ (as a casting director remarks), Lionel too remains a victim of his voice.
But where the two differ is that unlike Albert, Lionel maintains a positive relationship to technology. In their first therapy session Lionel records Albert’s speech on a Silvertone phonograph, a machine he excitedly describes as the “new invention from America”. Unable to hear his words – Lionel forces the Prince to wear headphones – Albert reads aloud from Hamlet until, frustrated by what he presumes has been a stammering mess, he abruptly ceases the recording.
It is only later, when Albert finally plays the record that he realises the legitimacy of Lionel’s therapeutic methods, and by extension the constructive power of the technology. Anticipating humiliation, Albert is instead struck by the clarity and power of his speech. Separated from the act of speaking via its replay and transmission, the voice is presented here as an isolated object: a marker of identity distinct from the subject. For Albert, the experience of hearing his voice in this manner is even more ambivalent since it is at once familiar (he recognises his words) and foreign (in the absence of his usual stammer).
At first signifying a threatening loss of authority, The King’s Speech thus gradually represents the voice apparatus as something that, once mastered, can produce powerful transformations. Importantly though, the film is not universally positive in its technological embrace. Even as the microphone becomes a symbol of constructive change, there remains a sense of caution about the possible uses of such technology. The Archbishop Lang (Derek Jacobi) describes the wireless as a “Pandora’s Box” while the references to impending war serve as a reminder of the potential in technology for mass-destruction.
Haunted by the spectre of World War II, such hesitancy seems in part a reaction to the possibility of bestowing absolute power upon those individuals in control of the technology. This fear is patently apparent in a scene towards the end of The King’s Speech, where Albert is seen watching newsreel footage from the Nuremberg rally. As images of Hitler orating passionately to the massed assembly flash upon the screen, Albert’s daughter inquires as to the meaning of his words. Albert replies, almost in an adoring tone, “I don’t know but he seems to be saying it rather well”.
Irrespective of the content of speech, the voice assumes an unmistakable force through its technological relay, and doubly so when that interaction blurs the boundaries between the personal and political as it does in the case of Nuremberg (and the final scene of The King’s Speech). More than an individual, the image of the Fuhrer stands as a representative of the entire Nazi party, and beyond that the most commonly deployed symbol of ‘evil’ from the twentieth century. Transcending the meaning of individual words, the voice is transformed through technology (the microphone but also the movie camera) into an object of spectacle, producing an overwhelming sense of affect; emphasised here by the lingering shots on Albert’s face as he watches the newsreel.
The connotations of this sequence – that it’s less relevant what is said than how it is said and through what means – are particularly instructive in terms of the final moments of The King’s Speech. With the assistance of Logue, Albert (now King George VI) delivers a royal broadcast on the outbreak of war. As he begins his speech, the camera cuts from the King and the microphone to images of various British citizens, gathered around wireless sets listening intently to the transmission.
The shift in focus here from the individual to the social mirrors the film’s transition in respect of the voice from a personal narrative (Albert’s quest to overcome his stammer) to a political one (resurrecting a belief in regal authority in the wake of King George V’s death and Edward’s abdication). More importantly though, it is through the technological object, the omnipresent microphone, that the voice (its power and associated identity) traverses from one field to the other.
As with the newsreel footage of Hitler at Nuremberg, the precise content of Albert’s speech in this final scene is less important than the act itself. Beyond the character’s personal triumph, in diverting attention from the speaker to the listeners of the broadcast the film refocuses upon the voice as a vehicle for socio-political change. The closing image of The King’s Speech in which the King and Queen wave to an adoring British public from the balcony of Buckingham Palace (their authority seemingly restored), thus serves to confirm that while history is typically memorialised through the written word, it’s produced through the voice of technology.