Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Giving the King a voice

The King’s Speech

Some movies, perhaps most movies set in the past try, directly or indirectly, to suggest lessons from that past relevant for us today. Films set in times of war are particularly frequently meant to say to us “Never Again” – although we rarely take any notice. Did Schindler’s List stop genocide? No. Did “Oh What a Lovely War” make Generals more sensitive to the privations of soldiers on the front? No. Did “The Last King of Scotland” make us all ensure that no more mad tyrants rule African countries? No again. These are all fine films but if they had objectives beyond that of telling a rattling good story I would suggest that these objectives were not met. So when one commentator suggested that “The Kings Speech” is a “…hymn to the royal ideal. An insidious anthem to the notion that nobility of birth and spirit are usually, if not always, linked” I was on my guard. I am, you see, a Republican – I believe that after our present Queen meets her maker we should get rid of the whole bloody nonsense. I don’t want, if I am still around, to be ruled by King Charles or King William or King or Queen anybody else for that matter. The hereditary principle in governance is almost dead in Britain – one more shove in a few years’ time and it will be gone for good.

But the charge that “The Kings Speech” is some sort of monarchist tract is frankly nonsense. Indeed it is at least arguable that the opposite is the case. It shows how close we were in a time of unimaginable national stress of having as a monarch a man of no moral principles, a dysfunctional personality and objectionable political views and social attitudes. Wallis Simpson saved us from that disaster and she and the equally hideous Duke of Windsor troubled us no more once brother Bertie reluctantly took the throne as King George VI. That’s the problem with the hereditary principle – for every good egg like George VI or Elizabeth II there are madmen like George III or twits like Edward VIII.

“The King’s Speech” is about Bertie (Colin Firth) and in particular about the Achilles heel that nearly made him unfit to rule. The Duke of York, as he was as the film opens, was the “spare” that King George V and Queen Mary produced in case there was a problem with the “heir” (the Duke of Windsor). He faffed around for a while getting married and having a couple of children and rather ineffectively standing in for the monarch from time to time. At the close of the Wembley exhibition in 1925 his serious stammering speech impediment was revealed to all and the realisation dawned that any sort of public speaking, especially on the new medium of the “Wireless”, would be torture for him. Long before his accession in 1936 Bertie and in particular his sparky, confident and determined wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) tried to find a way of curing the Duke’s stammer. A series of quacks and incompetents did not help him at all before the Duchess discovered the Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Logue was unconventional in his approach demanding informality in address (“Lionel” and “Bertie”) and also that the treatment took place in his Harley Street rooms rather that the Duke’s palace.

It took a while for Logue’s approach to work and for him to break down the barriers of class, position and nationality that divided him from the Duke. The Duke resisted hard at times and was clearly shocked at the Australian’s informality and lack of deference. But gradually he became to see that the approach was working, that Logue was sincere and talented and that the possibility for him to live a normal public life in service if his country was emerging. The cataclysm of the abdication enhanced the urgency for him to be able to speak clearly, and live, to his people as King. The approach of War made this all the more imperative. Logue became King George’s right hand, helped him hands on with his addresses to the nation – especially at the declaration of War in September 1939.

“The Kings Speech” is a true story. It is not a paean to monarchy but simply a portrait of a man at a moment in time who was bereft because he could not do a simple thing that almost everyone else could do - put a series of sentences together without stammering. And it mattered. It is also a portrait of a brilliant, engaging and strong-minded man, Lionel Logue, who had the talent and the means to make a difference. The key role of Queen Elizabeth in Bonham Carter’s slightly mischievous portrayal is also clear – although whether the (later) Queen Mother was then quite as sexy as she is portrayed I’m not sure! The reminder of the cast is also outstanding – including lovely cameos from Timothy Spall as Churchill and Derek Jacobi as the censorious Archbishop Lang. But this is, above all, Colin Firth’s film. We knew from “A Single Man” that Firth was a great deal more than a pretty face and with this performance he builds on the solid foundations of that film to create a moving, sensitive and utterly believable King in need. This is a portrait of a man at a moment in time dealt a hand which he has to play in the national interest. He is not, as some have suggested, defending the institution of the monarchy which despite the venality of his ghastly brother was not really in threat. Britain had been distracted over the abdication affair. There had also been the threat of Oswald Mosley’s fascists – the battle of Cable Street was only a couple of months before Bertie’s accession as King. Times were unimaginably difficult and in a constitutional monarchy it was not the King’s job to govern – but he could, and did, make a difference. This wonderful film shows how and why.


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