From the beginning of their relationship, when Lionel insists that no child begins to speak with a stammer, asking Bertie what he believes to be the cause of his speech impediment, he makes clear that this treatment at the heart of The King’s Speech (2010) will focus on psychological rather than purely mechanical issues.
Based on his experience with shell-shocked World War I vets, Lionel understands that speech impediments usually have psychogenic roots. Likewise, he understands that improvement in the symptoms depends upon a certain therapeutic relationship, the terms of which he takes pains to establish from the outset.
He refuses to call the Duke “Your Royal Highness” and explains that “In here, it’s better if we’re equals.” Soon thereafter, however, when telling Bertie he can’t smoke, he says, “My castle, my rules.” It’s his own authority rather than true equality between them that Lionel wants to establish because he knows the efficacy of the treatment depends to a large degree on his client having faith in that authority.
The first challenge comes when Lionel asks Bertie to recount his earliest memory. “I’m not hear to discuss personal matters!” Bertie bristles. In psychotherapy terms, we’d call this resistance: when Lionel attempts to probe the early roots of the Duke’s speech difficulties, Bertie resists delving into such painful matters and rebuffs his therapist. Eventually, without waiting to hear Lionel’s recording of his voice (meant to prove that the Duke can, in fact, speak without a stammer under the right conditions), Bertie says, “Sorry doctor, I don’t feel this is for me,” and leaves.
After he listens to the recording at home and hears the evidence of his unbroken speech, Bertie returns to treatment but still refuses to accept Lionel’s terms. “Strictly business. No personal nonsense,” he insists.
Lionel tries to convince him that “Physical exercises and tricks are important but what you’re asking will only deal with the surface of the problem.” He sounds like a good psychotherapist, explaining the difference between physical symptoms and psychological causes to his client. The Duke’s wife insists that her husband has only “mechanical problems” with his speech and asks whether Lionel will treat him on those terms. Lionel ostensibly agrees, but when Bertie tells him that they’ll see one another the following week, Lionel re-asserts his authority and insists, “I shall see you every day.”
The viewer has the impression he’s only biding his time and will probe the psychological roots of Bertie’s speech impediment when the time is right.
At the end of the ensuing montage of vocal exercises, we see Bertie having difficulty with the word “father.” From the earlier sequence in which the King gives advice to Bertie on how properly to deliver a speech, cruelly humiliating him in the process, it’s clear that in large part, Bertie’s speech difficulties concern his relationship to this remote and hypercritical parent.
In contrasting scenes, we see that Lionel is an emotionally-involved and supportive father who loves his children. While not exactly a substitute father for Bertie, his warmth and understanding eventually help Bertie to examine the pain of his childhood, in the process getting behind a royal facade that functions very much as a kind of characterological defense.
Just as someone who suffers from narcissistic personality disorder might conceal shame behind a facade of arrogance and contempt, remaining aloof from everyone, the Duke uses his royal persona as a kind of defense against shame. Lionel’s perseverence — combined with Bertie’s increasing need after his father’s death and his brother David’s abdication — eventually breaks through that facade.
As their work progresses, Lionel becomes Bertie’s friend, perhaps the first true friend with whom he can be entirely candid. When Lionel says, “What are friends for?”Bertie replies, “I wouldn’t know.”
For the first time, Bertie can begin to express himself fully and freely. When Lionel points out that Bertie doesn’t stammer whenever he gets angry, it leads to a poignant and funny scene where Bertie runs through a rather complete list of swear words, shouting and repeating them with obvious relief. As with many clients in psychotherapy, he has never before expressed himself so completely and without inhibition to another human being. Lionel has helped Bertie to confront how repressed he is and liberates him, at least for the moment.
The remainder of the film traces the progress and setbacks of this relationship between Lionel and Bertie: resistance and rejection when Lionel probes too deeply, increasing trust and dependency between doctor and patient. Lionel teaches Bertie breathing techniques and “tricks” to help him get through his public speeches, but more important, he helps Bertie to believe in himself.
With Lionel’s encouragement before his most important speech, Bertie cries, “I have a right to be bloody well heard!” The therapist has taught his client to stand up for himself and confront the inner critic, internalized from father and other harsh influences of childhood; in the process, he helps Bertie to weather his deepest levels of shame and anxiety, rather than being undone by them — what any good psychotherapist would hope to do.