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Shrink at the Movies: “The King’s Speech” (2010)

“The King’s Speech” (2010)

Criticize, if you must, the cultural and technological juggernaut that is all things Facebook.  But I, for one, am very grateful that this phenomenon exists.  For many reasons, but one of my favorites is the opportunity to connect with people from My Past that I had lost touch with.  One such person is my high school friend and colleague, actor Robert Stanton, who was (like me) very active in our high school’s prestigious Drama Department (though he was/is FAR more talented than I), who went on to become a successful actor in New York and Hollywood with an impressive body of work, and counting.  So when Robert posted his welcoming message on my “Shrink at the Movies” Facebook wall that, “The King’s Speech is the best movie about psychotherapy ever made; discuss”, I had no choice but to, well, discuss.  So, Robert dear, this is for you.

Technically, Geoffrey Rush’s character in “The King’s Speech” (directed by Tom Hooper, who won the Directing Oscar, and starring Colin Firth, who won the Best Actor Oscar) is not a psychotherapist, but is a speech pathologist, aka speech therapist, who treats the King of England for a stuttering problem.  I do not treat stutter in my work as a psychotherapist, but I understand the inclination to meld the two professions, especially given their emphasis on the interpersonal communication and relationship between therapist and client.  According to sources close to the real Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), Logue apparently combined elements of speech therapy with an exploration of any psychological underpinnings for the condition (in this case, the hypercritical former king who abuses the young prince who eventually becomes the King, Logue’s patient).

Rush’s character early on establishes what we therapists call a “therapeutic alliance” with the King.  He also dispenses with any of that “your  Highness” protocol in the office and calls him by his first name, or actually his nickname, “Bertie”, so that at least a level, collaborative playing field can be established, or even a teacher-student hierarchical one.  This is, I believe, an important point.  When I work with someone, as I like to say, “in the public eye,” it would do us no good for me to be “star struck” and lose objectivity.  I might admire their work – I might even be in awe of their talent, skill, and the importance of their body of work, and the effect they have had on an industry and many people – but in the office, in doing the work, we are on a first-name basis and all is fair in confronting them on the areas where we determine that they undermine themselves and self-sabotage their own important life goals (just like any other client).  It is only through establishing this rapport and alliance with Bertie that Logue is able to probe where the heart of the problem lies in his troubled past as a child.

The later conflicts between Logue and Bertie, especially when Bertie gets frustrated and frequently uses the word “fuck” as a coping mantra to bind his own frustration and anxiety, are reminiscent of some “middle treatment” issues – not the beginning of the work, which is establishing the relationship, and not the end of the work, which is reviewing and consolidating gains in what therapists call the “termination” process (which sounds kind of awful, I realize), but middle treatment, where the therapeutic relationship is really covering ground at full cruising altitude.  It’s like the middle of a movie, play, marathon, workout, painting, sculpture, or even rock concert, and some would argue that this is where the good stuff really happens.

“The King’s Speech” also does a good job, I think, of depicting what we clinical social workers call the “micro” (person to person) versus the “macro” (the broader community or society) aspects of our work (I say clinical social workers because we tend to use the micro/macro terms, while my colleagues who are other types of licensed mental health professionals tend not to use this concept).  The “micro” relationship is between Logue and Bertie along together in a clinical treatment process; the “macro”, or world-at-large, implication is that Logue, the teacher, is helping Bertie, the KING OF ENGLAND, to prepare an entire nation for a major World War.  While the importance of achieving psychotherapy’s goals are usually apparent to the client, in the case of Logue and Bertie, the implications for WHY he needed to overcome his stammer, at least in part, were critical for a very high-profile job that requires the broadcast of formal speeches to support the morale of an entire country.  While everyone I work with significantly influences the lives of others (the lesson of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), which I will address in another essay), when I work with someone on whom hundreds of employees depend and millions of dollars are at stake, the work has especially sobering macro implications.  It’s not that these clients are “more important,” it’s that the stakes are higher of the magnitude of the implications for their success or failure at functioning well on many different personal and professional levels.  One wonders if the client in Logue’s office just before, or just after, sessions with Bertie got the same attention and treatment as the Royal Sovereign might.  I think, with Logue and with most therapists, they would.  Many therapists work on a sliding scale of their fee (perhaps giving a discounted fee occasionally to people of lower income);  they do not, however, work any sort of “sliding scale” on their efforts with the client.  This is part of the ethics of the profession, which are numerous and gravely important.

As I teach my students in my clinical practice class at the USC School of Social Work, there are many articles in the academic literature that purport the idea that it is not so much the psychotherapeutic theory or technique used with a patient (I use “client” and “patient” interchangeably) that affects the therapy outcome, it is primarily the quality of the relationship between therapist and client that affects positive outcomes.  While some studies indicate a slight edge of success for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (my personal favorite), and for what is called “evidence-based practice” of some techniques over others, I have found in my 20 years of doing therapy that it is, indeed, this relationship that is ultimately where the magic of therapy happens.

So it stands to reason, then, that my friend Robert Stanton, whom I worship from afar (he’s in New York), is perhaps correct when he says that “The King’s Speech” is the best movie about psychotherapy ever made.  Now, we have to consider some others, even such hilarious send-ups such as “Analyze This” (1999), which I will also try to address in a future essay, and a few others along the way, but I think Stanton’s overall hypothesis could be correct in that the Oscar-win-inspiring “King’s Speech” depicts the precious joy that is the therapeutic relationship.  Long live the King.

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