Sunday, 27 February 2011

The King's Speech

I keep saying that I should make an effort to go see more movies so I can review them, because I do really enjoy doing it and it’s a pretty easy way of making sure I have something to blog about. You saw what happens when I don’t last week. So this week I trotted down to the local cinema to watch The King’s Speech, which has been justifiably well reviewed by everyone. You might ask why I haven’t done this before, given that it’s been out for a couple of months now, and I would reply that the local cinema only started showing it a couple of weeks ago. And I’ve been busy.

The King’s Speech is, fairly obviously, about a speech made by a king; more specifically King George VI of Britain, father of the current Queen, and his speech at the outbreak of the Second World War. Actually it’s about a man trying to rise above the bullying and scorn of his youth and grow into the role to which he is destined. It’s also about the nature and necessity of Kingship in the modern age; the conflict between self-interest and duty; and the treatment of colonialists in Britain in the twilight of The Empire.

Most importantly it is about the man. Two men actually. Bertie: King George, and his speech therapists, an Australian failed actor, Lionel Logue. You see, Bertie has a terrible stutter. In the age where radio is beginning to be a world wide phenomenon, a stutter is a rather terrible thing for a prince to have. He is expected to be a public speaker, so must learn to speak.

The relationship between Bertie and Lionel is fascinating. It begins as a purely professional one; any intimacy barred by the impenetrable walls of class that existed in 20th century Britain. Bertie is an aristocrat and Lionel is not even British: he’s an Australian, a colonialist, a nobody. There should be no way, in such a society, that they could be anything but professional acquaintances. The Prince knows this. Lionel chooses to ignore it. He constantly and persistently pushes the bounds their relationship. He suffers Bertie’s temper numerous times, but persists in his attempts to become friends with him.

As the story progresses, Bertie realises that he not only can be friends with Lionel, but that he must in order to find his voice. He’s lived a friendless, isolated life, and Lionel is the only person to whom he can actually talk about his past. His stutter has made him an object of mockery, particularly at the hands of his brother, egged on by his father. Only by opening himself up to Lionel, can he acknowledge the fear and resentment that have stolen his voice.

However in the act of opening himself up, he leaves himself open to being hurt. Lionel is frank, crass and forthwith. Princes are not used to being treated as Lionel treats Bertie; as an equal. This is the main cause of the conflict between the two; Bertie repeatedly fails to accept Lionel’s treatment of him. The thing is, this problem never goes away. Lionel repeatedly provokes Bertie, even up to the scene towards the end in Westminster Abby prior to his coronation. Everything does not end perfectly; they do not get on completely. Their friendship overcomes the conflicts which arise, partial, from Lionel’s attempts to provoke Bertie (he doesn’t stutter when he’s angry), and, as all friends must, they learn to live with each other’s imperfections.

The King’s Speech really is a wonderful study of a relationship that must develop and grow, but is consistently stunted by assumptions and conflict. Both of these must be overcome in order for The King to deliver his speech. However it is so much more than that.

One of the main themes of The King’s Speech is the relevance of Kingship itself. Bertie keeps coming back to the paradox of kingly authority in Britain. He is in the paradoxical position of having huge responsibility and absolutely no power. He cannot make laws, raise taxes, or declare war. He is a figurehead; the voice of the nation. But he has no voice. He is there to inspire, to lead, and to rally. With war looming, such responsibilities are becoming ever more important. Yet he is still just a figurehead. Bertie’s feeling of helplessness is all the more poignant because he doesn’t have a choice. His stutter wouldn’t be much of a problem if he was an ordinary person, but his birthright puts him in the terrible position of needing a voice, but not having one. Bertie wrestles with his responsibilities and curses his lack of tangible power, but ends up accepting the inevitable and rising to it.

By contrast Lionel must deal with the problem of being a nobody. He is constantly reminded that he is Australian – despite his perfectly good English accent (or maybe I’ve been down under too long and cannot pick the difference any more!). He is looked down upon simply for not being English. The underlying racism is dealt with wonderfully because it’s never really explicitly mentioned, but constantly colours people’s attitude towards Lionel. He battles this, not by raging against the establishment, but simply by ignoring it. He ignores customs and conventions, speaks to all as equals and treats all as people, not as Englishmen, princes, or anything else. The way in which Lionel is treated asks the viewer questions about our own prejudices. Those who treat Lionel with distain are not acting out of malice or reasoned contempt; they are simply acting on unspoken assumptions. In retrospect we can see the flaws in their behaviour. The unstated nature of those flaws makes us wonder what unspoken assumptions we might have and how they might effect how we treat others.

I’ve not even mentioned the other characters yet. Bertie’s brother, Edward, was king for about a year, before abdicating. His reason for abdicating: his desire to marry a double divorcée American. Apparently you’re not allowed by be King and marry divorcées, which seems terribly unfair on divorced people. He doesn’t want to be King. He’s forced by birth into a job that he doesn’t want, and one that forces him to renounce the woman he loves. We’re not supposed to like Edward; he’s a bully, and an arrogant, selfish fool, but we do have to feel somewhat sorry for him. His unsuitability and lack of desire for rule begs the question of why should someone be forced to do a job they don’t want because of their heritage? Moreover, why should someone be forced to renounce the person he loves because of a duty to people that he doesn’t seem to care about?

As you can tell, I was rather a fan of The King’s Speech. It was a wonderful story that was wonderfully told. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush were fantastic as the leads, and the supporting actors and actresses were pretty flawless too. Ramona Marquez will never fail to be utterly adorable in a role, and Michael Gambon was suitably austere and commanding as King George V. The writing was superb, witty and sincere at the same time, without trying too hard at either. One part stands out in particular. One scene flows flawlessly from a discussion between Lionel and Bertie about Bertie’s past, to Bertie reeling off long strings of swear words (watching Collin Firth striding around a room spewing expletives might just be the most entertaining thing I see all year), to a scene in which the two argue about kingship through foggy London. The film transitions seamlessly between dead serious, side-splittingly hilarious and fiercely dramatic in the space of a couple of minutes.

Another feature that really stood out for me was the use of actual footage, both for George VI’s coronation, and then, more importantly, scenes from The Triumph of the Will, a propaganda film about the Nuremburg Rally. While the transition was somewhat forced, the contrast between the stuttering George VI and Adolf Hitler was incredible. Seeing Leni Riefenstahl’s brilliant piece of propaganda fills me with a mixture of dread and awe every time I see it. The line that will stay with me for longest from the film, being a historian and all, comes from this scene. Bertie is asked by one of his daughters what Hitler is saying. He replies ‘I don’t know, but he seems to be saying it rather well.’

The King’s Speech will, no doubt, be fighting it out with Inception for Best Picture at the Oscars (and a whole load of other awards as well, but who cares about those?). If you’ve not already seen it, I suggest you do so, because it’s well worth it. Probably not one I’ll see twice (unlike Inception), but worth seeing once. I say I’d like to do more movie reviews, but both True Grit and The Black Swan have passed me by, it would seem, and I’m not all that interesting in seeing any of the films either out or upcoming until Thor at the end of April. So much for that plan.

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