Thursday, April 21, 2011

The King's Speech: Uneasy Lies the Head...

The King's Speech
UK, 2010
Directed by Tom Hooper

Leaving aside any perfectly-germane questions about historical accuracy, let's talk about The King's Speech as a film. Does it work well as a piece of filmed entertainment? Absolutely. Nearly every detail of the film, from direction to set design, has been artfully considered and well-executed. The acting is excellent and the characterizations believable, with only a couple of cartoonish exceptions. David Seidler's Oscar-winning script is uplifting, humorous,  and well-considered. So was The King's Speech the best picture of the year? Perhaps, but I think it was more the Best Picturest picture of the year, which is an important distinction.

Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the Duke of York—Bertie to his family—is second-in-line to the throne his imposing father George V (Michael Gambon) currently occupies. His elder brother Prince Edward of Wales (Guy Pearce)—known primarily as David—is an irresponsible, Nazi-sympathizing playboy, bent on bedding and wedding a twice-married American divorcée. As such, George V starts forcing the private Bertie into the public sphere to prepare him in case Edward does not produce legitimate heirs. Unfortunately Bertie has a severe stammer, which the film would have us believe is caused at least as much by growing up in the restrictive, unloving Royal Household as by his genetics. Encouraged by his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter), Bertie seeks help from a Harley Street speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Logue's unconventional methods and personal tone seem to be just what Bertie needs, if he can only get over his baggage and recognize it.

To the extent that it is true, Speech is an interesting bit of history, sort of a semi-forgotten footnote to the abdication crisis and Second World War. And certainly, some fudging has taken place, even aside from the issues mentioned in the Christopher Hitchens piece I linked above. Timelines have been compressed, dramatic arcs created, narrative tension suitably dispersed. This is all reasonable from a story perspective, although, as a side effect, it causes one of the film's only faults: a certain, familiar, formulaic rhythm. We have our training montages, our remission/relapse sequences, our triumphal moment, our textual postscript detailing everyone's happily-ever-afters. Between the much–commented upon Oscar-bait subject matter (British royalty, Nazis, unlikely class-crossing friendships, people overcoming impairments) and this easy predictability, there is little surprise that Speech won the big Oscars that it did. This is what I meant when I called it the Best Picturest picture of the year.

But beyond that stuff, deeper than the crowd-pleasing, rah-rah, adversity-beating text, lies the subtext that truly makes Speech an outstanding picture. While the film has, on the surface, a cautiously Royalist tone, below that there is a slight thread of protest. It's not enough that I would call this a Republican (in the British sense) picture, but it is enough to keep the film from turning into a hagiography. As I mentioned before, Logue's contention is that Bertie's emotional state, more than his physical impairment, is the cause of his stammer. That emotional state comes from being raised in an unnatural environment. At one point, George V calls the Royal Family "actors," and he's right. On almost all levels, their lives are a repressive fiction, and one which both Bertie and David struggle against.

Bertie has no friends, he realizes, other than his wife, who admits to having twice rejected his marriage proposal for fear of losing her agency by joining the scripted soap opera of Royal life. David wants to marry for love, and though he is a cad, a wastrel, and a Nazi sympathizer, we feel he should be free to marry whoever he wants. All of these characters have been forced to sacrifice their freedoms to the "greater good" and become symbols of a nation, rather than live as people. They are no longer able to have personal lives. What Logue recognizes in Bertie is that he's a man who, in spite of protestations to the contrary, needs to talk about "personal matters," even if simply because no-one else has ever been willing or able to listen.

Now, ultimately, the film does valorize Bertie's status as the inspirational figurehead via the impact of his powerful pre-war speech. But I think that it asks rather leading questions about whether or not the sacrifices inherent to living and raising children under the Royal banner are fair to ask of anyone. Now, far be it from me to suggest, in these lousy economic times, that we should take pity on a wealthy, patriarchal group of tax-supported "actors." There are far worthier recipients of that pity. But by even raising these questions, Speech becomes something more than the boilerplate Oscar bait it might otherwise have been. Through its emphasis on the humanizing, healing power of friendship and equality, The King's Speech subtly provides what might be the first argument for eliminating the Royal family not for reasons of liberty, governance, or legitimacy, but for the betterment of those souls born into that stultifying lifestyle through no choice of their own.

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