Now, the therapist is the real king
The King’s Speech rewrites the story of George VI through the prism of today’s therapeutic, ‘damaged goods’ culture.
Preparing to give the speech of his life, a radio broadcast to unite Britain after the declaration of war, the stammer-afflicted King George VI teeters on meltdown: ‘If I am to be king… where is my power? May I form a government, levy a tax or declare a war? No! Yet I am the seat of all authority. Why? Because the nation believes when I speak, I speak for them. Yet I cannot speak!’
That little moment captures in microcosm one of a number of interesting themes in The King’s Speech: a man of apparently great power brought low by his impediment. Yet all the major buzz around the film, at least in the UK, has been about whether Colin Firth will pick up an Oscar next month for his portrayal of the king – only the latest example of us Brits simultaneously assuming a cultural superiority over Americans while desperately seeking their approval.
But this is a good film that works on a range of levels. Most obviously, it is a triumph-over-adversity story: the Duke of York, second in line to the British throne, is a stiff, repressed Brit with a severe speech impediment that means making speeches is torture for both speaker and listener. Yet through dedication and hard work, he manages to conquer his problem in the nick of time: when his brother David – who has ascended to the throne as Edward VIII – abdicates in 1936, the duke must reluctantly accept the crown, taking his father’s name to become George VI. The dramatic tension comes from the fact that with the country heading towards war, and with the advent of radio and newsreels, it is vital that the nation’s figurehead can speak in public. Firth is an ideal choice for the role: he is to stiff, repressed Brits what John Wayne was to cowboys.
The film’s septuagenarian writer, David Seidler, had a severe stammer as a child and apparently regarded King George as something of a hero. And naturally, as is the way today, the film has been lauded for raising the profile of this distressing condition.
On another level, we have a buddy movie: the duke’s therapist is Lionel Logue, a self-taught Australian played appealingly by Geoffrey Rush. As a colonial and a commoner, his life has been a world away from his royal patient’s. As the duke says in one session: ‘Sometimes, when I ride through the streets and see, you know, the common man staring at me, I’m struck by how little I know of his life, and how little he knows of mine.’ Yet Logue insists on an unfamiliar familiarity from the start, referring to the duke as ‘Bertie’.
The King’s Speech has parallels with The Madness of King George, but the relationship between the royal and his medical saviour here is far less antagonistic. Bertie and Lionel are friends, and apparently remained so until the king’s death in 1952. Here we have the wise expert leading his pupil through an amusing montage of fun but mildly humiliating exercises, leading Vanity Fair’s Jim Wondolf to describe the film affectionately as ‘The Karate Kid in a spiffier costume’. If The King’s Speech plays up to a couple of well-worn Hollywood formulas, however, director Tom Hooper does a good job of making the film both touching and funny in turns.
Nonetheless, its view of British royalty is a peculiarly modern one, one that could only have been made post-Diana. The reason the king is so afflicted, it seems, is because of the emotionally repressed surroundings he is raised in. If only a few more people had been able to call him Bertie, if only he hadn’t had his childhood fears and failings so brutally criticised by his father, he might never have suffered with a stammer in the first place.
The royals, so it goes, are just like you and me; and we are all of us flawed, we’re all damaged goods in one way or another. Ironically, in this retelling, the authority figure is the therapist, not the king. This reinterpretation of history produces some perverse outcomes. I must admit to finding it rather strange that a historic speech – in which the monarch effectively tries to sell the prospect of barbaric slaughter to the nation – becomes a feelgood payoff in the same way as a sheep-herding piglet is at the close of Babe.
The King’s Speech reminds us, in fact, that the royals are not like us or, at least, they’re not supposed to be. When Bertie confronts his brother David (Guy Pearce) about his desire to marry an American divorcee, Wallace Simpson, David moans: ‘Your beloved common man may marry for love, why not me?’ Bertie replies: ‘If you were the common man, on what basis could you possibly claim to be king?!’
The king must reign – if not rule – by divine right. It is the belief that there is something natural and eternal about the monarchy that is central to its purpose: to allow the establishment to justify its rule even at the expense of democratic accountability in parliament. A king may have no power to declare war, but the prime minister may do so in his name without recourse to the elected representatives of the people. Yet, as the abdication affair illustrates, the establishment is not above picking and choosing the country’s head of state, just as long as the common man doesn’t get that power. It would be great if The King’s Speech – and the seventy-fifth anniversary of the abdication this year – could provoke a more serious discussion about ditching the monarchy, but there seems little sign of that.
The King’s Speech certainly deserves serious consideration for a few gongs during the current awards season. In particular, Rush delivers a masterfully minimalist performance as Lionel Logue. There’s a scene at the end of the film where King George VI goes out to greet the crowds on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Back inside, Logue smiles to himself at the king’s achievement in delivering that vital broadcast. Except that Rush doesn’t move his lips; he somehow exudes a smile while barely shifting a muscle, a feat of expressive understatement unmatched since Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. In my humble opinion, as a common man, on Oscars night it shouldn’t be Firth delivering the big speech, but Rush.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
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