Applause welcome stammering king to Toronto film festival

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A stammering British royal pressed to overcome his speech disorder to rally his empire at war gave a young boy hope he might also triumph and led to a world premiere at the Toronto film festival on Saturday.

"The King's Speech," written by David Seidler and directed by Tom Hooper ("The Damned United"), chronicles King George VI's reluctant rise to power after his brother abdicates.

It stars Colin Firth as the king and Geoffrey Rush as an unorthodox Australian therapist Lionel Logue, who helped the monarch manage his stutter.

"I was a stutterer," admitted Seidler. "The trauma of (moving from England to the United States as a boy) started a very severe stutter. I couldn't speak."

Seidler's parents, he said, urged him as a child to listen to the king's speeches during the Second World War. "'He (once) stuttered very, very badly, (his parents told Seidler) and listen to him now.' It gave me hope that one day I could be cured."

While researching the life of the king affectionately known as Bertie, Seidler said he found vague references to Logue. "There's not much written about him. The royal family doesn't like to talk about the royal stutter, but I sensed there was a story there."

He eventually tracked down Logue's grandson who offered him his father's notebooks on treating the king.

Stuttering can have severe emotional consequences such as anxiety, self-imposed isolation, shame or stress. In Bertie's case, he hoped to avoid becoming king.

"Twenty years earlier," explained Hooper, "being king was still a visual thing. As long as you looked good on a horse or you could wave from a carriage or wave from a balcony and look fine, you could fulfill the ceremonial roles."

"Suddenly (Bertie) was facing being king at a moment when you had to speak publicly on the radio to the 58 countries of the British Empire, which represented one quarter of the world's population," he said.

"So many people looked to the king for a performance that would emotionally connect and on top of that you had the Second World War coming."

On the one hand, people heard Adolf Hitler give "brilliant, fiery, fluent articulate" speeches while the king of England was "struggling to speak at all."

The period was "a fascinating moment when you chart the way mass media has transformed institutions like the monarchy... and the way leadership has to operate."

Colin Firth admitted that he worked with a dialect coach and a speech therapist for the role of Bertie.

"It had to come from some visceral place but it also had to be carefully monitored for the sake of the drama because... this is a 111-minutes film and if it takes this guy 20 minutes to get a word out, it will affect the pace."

They also had to carefully consider where to insert "relapses" and "painful silences," he said.

Helena Bonham Carter and Guy Pearce also star in the film.

© 2010 AFP

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