“If I’m a king, where’s my power? Can I form a government? Can I levy a tax, declare a war? No, and yet I’m seat of all authority. Why? Because the Nation believes that when I speak, I speak for them. But I can’t speak.”
Colin Firth delivers these lines in his role as King George VI of Britain in the 2010 historical drama The King’s Speech. The King (known as “Bertie” throughout the film) feared that he was inadequate to lead the country through WWII. He suffered from a chronic stammer that made public speaking his own private Hell. As Hitler’s forces spread across Europe, the radio became a necessary tool for governmental figures to provide comfort and support to their people. Bertie could provide little more than silence. In 1926, he began to take speech therapy from Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who became his lifelong friend. With Logue’s help, Bertie overcame most of his stammer and gave many important speeches to the British people.
Director Tom Hooper’s interpretation of the king’s life attracted critical acclaim. The film scooped up award after award, including four Oscars out of twelve nominations. One of these was for Best Original Score by French composer Alexandre Desplat. While Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross beat him to the gold with their music for The Social Network, Desplat’s hushed tones and reserved melodies satisfied both the requirements of the genre and subject matter of The King’s Speech.
Up until now, I’ve only discussed fantasy and sci-fi films on this blog. I can’t help it – great composers are drawn to make-believe like moths to a television screen. There’s so much potential for scoring in a limitless world. Choirs, sweeping instruments, all the knobs and buttons on those shiny new soundboards, all the tools to create a playground of sound. But when a composer such as Desplat writes music for a historical drama, the expectations for the score change. In an interview with bltnews.com, Desplat compares his genre work (such as his score for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1) with The King’s Speech. He says, “In many films you amplify the action or you amplify emotions – the big landscapes where you can let the horses gallop under your music. On this one [The King’s Speech] it was very, very subtle. The film needed music, but it had to be a very subtle, understated, restrained score.”
The score certainly is subtle. The first time I watched the film, I barely noticed the music in the background. It is performed by a small, piano-dominated chamber orchestra. Every piece hints at the slightly suffocating nature of British royal life in the early twentieth century – private, clipped, and refined. This can be heard in the main theme, “The King’s Speech,” introduced at the beginning of the film (you may watch the scene here.) Desplat described “The King’s Speech” as one of his favorite compositions for the film, as the simple piano suggests Bertie’s childlike vulnerability juxtaposed with his formal upbringing.
It was essential for the entire score to be based around this one man, King George VI, because he provides an emotional core for the film. He continues to act as a symbol for those with speech disorders today, such as the screenwriter for the film, David Seidler, as well as one of my own friends. Just as importantly, he summons up feelings of empathy from those who don’t have speech disorders, such as myself. I felt that I was able to connect with him over my anxiety and misophonia, a neurological disorder that causes me to physically react to trigger sounds. There’s a sort of universality to Bertie, some sort of sense that if he could do his duty in the face of his problems, than everybody else can, too. Desplat’s score helps the audience to connect with the king by giving them a thorough understanding of his true nature.
“The King’s Speech” theme represents Bertie’s stammer. It runs on a loop, with strains of music suggesting themselves and then dying away, as though the musician can’t finish what he started. The theme relies on repeated notes and the use of silence as “negative space,” symbolizing the king’s struggle to enunciate his words. However, as the movie progresses and the he starts speech therapy with Lionel Logue, “The King’s Speech” theme begins to develop more fully. The piece “The Rehearsal” plays while Bertie practices responses for his coronation. (You may watch the scene here, but unfortunately, the only clip I found had the dialogue removed. For context, you may watch the scene preceding it here.) In the scene, Bertie finally realizes that Logue has helped him and that he “has a voice” at last. “The Rehearsal” reflects this, as the gentle, repetitive melodies from “The King’s Speech” develop into a full piece that swells to a climax before a solid conclusion.
Desplat describes his method of developing Bertie’s therapy process with music as “very intellectual,” and stated that the entire process was “full of light.” While these words carry a touch of pride, his work is full of humility. He put in hours of effort to confine the score to an intimate scale. He found the balance between accentuating character and upstaging the actors by allowing “The Rehearsal” to show character development without jamming it down the audiences’ throats. Desplat didn’t need to do well on The King’s Speech to prove himself – he had already written over 100 scores and been nominated for several prestigious awards before the film came his way. But he pushed himself to new heights, honoring history to such degree that he used the original microphones from King George VI’s speeches to record the score. It is Desplat’s commitment to history and to character development that sets the score for The King’s Speech apart.