Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The King and I

Santiago Ramos’ take on The King’s Speech from the upcoming edition of the Catholic Key:

MediaPicFeb11 The King’s Speech
Directed by Tom Hooper
Written by David Seidler
Starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter

Review by Santiago Ramos

The King’s Speech is a feel-good movie, but it gives you more than one reason to feel good. The first reason is the typical triumph-over-adversity story which moviegoers in 2011 perceive not so much as a story but as a sign. The Pavlovian response is: “Ah yes. The hero is beset by a problem within himself; he overcomes it with hard work and the wisdom of a mentor. I feel good.” Colin Firth plays Prince Albert, Duke of York, who will become King George VI and has a severe speech impediment that keeps him from making speeches. Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a fuzzy and wise Australian speech therapist, finds a way to cure him. Logue treats the prince’s diaphragm but also his crippled self-esteem. More than one part of Edward must be rehabilitated before he is ready to become king—Lionel mocks the future King’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), when she insists that the treatment focus exclusively on the “mechanical” aspect of the problem.

The dramatic irony in the film is that Albert will become king and he doesn’t know it. Only we know it, and maybe Lionel has secretly wanted him to become king all along. Albert’s brother, David, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII), is a vapid playboy who is next in line to the throne, but he will abdicate once it becomes clear that, as king, he would never be able to marry his twice-divorced American lover, Wallis Simpson. The abdication crisis occurs right as Europe winds up for another multinational war. Not only must Albert overcome his lack of self-esteem and become king, but he must overcome his stuttering and go on BBC Radio to explain to his subjects why and when the United Kingdom will go to war against Hitler. This radio address is the second reason for feeling good.

The King makes a long walk toward the recording booth, accompanied by Lionel, with a confident swagger and a sense of mission. All around him are Lords and former and future Prime Ministers, including Winston Churchill, wily and witty, chomping on a cigar, looking like he could beat up Hitler and out-debate William F. Buckley both at the same time. But even Churchill doesn’t shine as much as King George, who is a wounded hero, but a hero whose wound has only made him stronger, strong enough to assume his role in history. Inside the recording booth, the King suffers again from a momentary lack of confidence; but outside the booth, everyone is crossing their fingers, wanting to believe that this king will make a great speech, and that the peoples of the United Kingdom will understand the importance of the moment they are about to enter in history—and why Hitler must be defeated.

The speech is tense but beautiful. It is played to the sound of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh symphony. The good feeling it inspires has little to do with the triumph-over-adversity story. It is the feeling of gravity and seriousness.

Many reviewers have pointed out the numerous historical errors in this film. Edward VIII was much more sympathetic to fascism and close to Hitler than the film makes him out to be. Winston Churchill never supported Albert during the abdication crisis, but rather held out for King Edward VIII to remain on the throne. King George initially supported Neville Chamberlain’s policies before he backed Churchill’s war effort.

But not least among the inaccuracies is one which no reviewer I’ve read has pointed out as significant—that the big speech which Albert makes after his treatment with Lionel has begun to succeed was not for the BBC on the eve of war, but actually a much more mundane affair before the Federal Parliament of Australia in Canberra, in 1927. It’s for this type of thing that “artistic license” was devised.

Keeping these errors in mind, we can still heed the good feelings. They are nobler than those inspired by the typical triumph-over-adversity tale. We are not rooting so much for Albert to overcome his fears, but for Albert to become King George. And there is also something distinctly democratic, maybe even American, about the way in which Albert becomes King. Lionel, a commoner and Australian, wants more than merely to cure Albert. He wants him to become a great leader. When, in one scene, he mockingly sits on the throne in Westminster Abbey and infuriates Albert, he doesn’t do it as an act of irreverence, but only to jog Albert into heeding his call to leadership. We want him to become excellent and to mature and to face reality like a hero.

You can call that sentimental, and maybe it partially is. It is also nostalgia of the “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” sort. Yet within it lies a craving for gravity that will not abandon even the most media-addled mind. We empathize with Lionel and we look around for a King George. But for the moment, it’s back to Chris Matthews or Bill O’Reilly, and E! and figuring out who the good guys and bad guys are in Egypt.

Santiago Ramos is currently pursuing doctoral studies in philosophy at Boston College. He has written for First Things, Image Journal, Commonweal and the Pitch.