The King’s Speech: it doesn’t speak for me

A film lecturer from Down Under slams the portrayal of the monarchy as decent and Aussies as submissive.

Hamish Ford

Topics Culture

Apart from causing some debate over historical accuracy, The King’s Speech has been almost unanimously praised. Its stars, Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, received BAFTAs for their performances and the film has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards. So, seeking to escape the heatwave here in Australia a couple of weeks back, I finally went to see what all the fuss was about.

With one exception – its self-conscious swearing – this is a film so traditional in both aesthetic form and apparent values that it could have been made at the time of the events portrayed. Except that if it were from the 1930s (unless merely a rank propaganda exercise), The King’s Speech might have offered a complex insight into real history. It might have marshalled the strict rules of classical Hollywood narrative filmmaking that were then at peak development to deliver, not only taut and fast-moving cinema, but perhaps also a thematically interesting and not entirely predictable work. Instead, as it is, the film moves with leaden-footed obviousness to an inevitable conclusion, the narrative offering no surprises within and between scenes, and tells its story through consistently bland images.

Tom Hooper, the TV-based director of The King’s Speech, has clearly tried to make a ‘quality film’ here by ticking all the boxes designed to please a sizable adult audience that understandably dislikes contemporary Hollywood movies aimed at teenage boys. The film is peppered with some English-weather-derived atmospheric exterior shots familiar from countless BBC period dramas. The interior scenes are dominated by shots that strive for classical lightness and transparency but are, in fact, rather arbitrary-looking and quite artless.

This clumsy TV version of a would-be ‘quality Hollywood’-style movie becomes momentarily unhinged when what some pernickety film scholars call the ‘180-degree line’ is broken during a conversation scene, so that a cut to a new shot seems to show one character suddenly looking in the opposite direction despite not having moved. If it popped up much earlier in the film, this moment might have promised something more than a poor, wheezy version of outmoded film language. But it was merely a mistake.

For its many admirers, the film’s character-based drama makes The King’s Speech clearly superior to blow-’em-up Hollywood cinema, especially as given life by two ‘virtuoso’ performances. But beyond surface theatrics, what kind of world do these vividly portrayed figures perform for us?

As the Prince Albert, Duke of York, or ‘Bertie’ to his family, Colin Firth’s familiar on-screen persona reaches an almost ridiculous apotheosis of privileged, repressed English masculinity. Here he gives us its absolute zenith as the humiliated, chronically stammering unelected hereditary heir and then leader – as King George VI – of the world‘s most powerful country, a huge number of whose domestic and colonial subjects (25 per cent of the Earth’s population, as a radio announcer proudly reminds us in an early scene) suffer lives of shameful poverty and exploitation. This, remember, is Britain before Labour’s extensive postwar welfare and social reforms (following the June 1945 landslide election defeat of Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party). This is the country whose nineteenth-century slums and working conditions were the prime source material for Marx and Engels’ famous works.

Defenders of The King’s Speech would argue that the royal family is portrayed as far from perfect and that it is only ‘Bertie’ who undergoes a humanising journey from a pompous and bad-tempered duke to a humble but confident king. But, through this process, the Monarchy per se is humanised, so that we grow to feel rather sorry for, and even like, the pathetic stuttering bugger on screen – and by inference the office he comes to hold.

But how can we empathise, let alone sympathise, with a King? An obviously stuffy ‘Rule, Britannia’ royal celebration of the current Queen’s father would be hard to take for the film’s many left-liberal – and likely republican – viewers. So the story really takes off with the appearance of someone we can unambiguously cheer as one of ‘us’: an antipodean colonial subject.

From our first glimpse of Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) – after keeping the future King’s wife waiting in his hallway because he ‘was just in the loo’ – we are led to like this expat Australian. The speech therapist enunciates apparently hearty disdain for hierarchy in insisting on addressing the recalcitrant duke by his nickname during the royal’s first visit to Logue’s cavernous and dingy rooms. His unorthodox speech therapy method and antics later reach a peak when he encourages some royal swearing. How naughty this film is, with no one less than the King-to-be repeatedly saying ‘Fuck!’

But potential subversion is gradually enough drowned in the sentimental goo of an unequal love story, with feisty egalitarianism kept safely in check as therapeutic method. So the offence Lionel causes prior to George VI’s coronation by lounging on his throne, saying ‘I don’t care how many Royal arseholes have sat here’, is engineered to try and generate some proprietorial hubris befitting a hereditary ruler – not exactly the act of a colonial ratbag.

Lionel, the King’s ‘friend’ by the end, finally utters the distinctly impersonal ‘Your Majesty’ with satisfied you’ve-earned-it approval following his coaching of the new monarch to inevitable triumph: not only delivering a stammer-free, gravitas-laden radio speech to the nation and its colonies, but also giving the royal imprimatur to Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. In this seemingly odd-couple romance, the character who at first seems to be a more modern figure who is disrespectful of stuffy tradition and quintessential hierarchy ends up reaffirming such values by instilling faith in the crown’s ‘natural’ wearer.

While US and UK critics and audiences have their own problematic reasons for extolling the film, Australians have exhibited pride that it has a prominent local presence both on and off screen. But even more perhaps that it is our man – resplendent with his moderate middle-class Australian accent (via notably theatrical diction) – who stands up, initially at least, to the quintessence of undemocratic English power and privilege that we think we love to knock.

However, far from being discredited or disavowed, through being ‘made human’ the symbolic ruler of such a world is updated for the then-new mass media age and for our own current self-help era. Showing us that ‘royals have problems, too’, the Australian in The King’s Speech effectively cures – indeed redeems – the sclerotic privileges and personage of colonial-era British monarchy.

With the literal and figurative restoring of the King’s speech, egalitarian and potentially more radical words and visions are silenced. The film thereby also reinforces the clichés of stuffy old England and brash young Australia – as affectionate, mutually reliant partners joined in an embrace that effectively rejuvenates the former’s traditional pomp and power thanks to the latter’s fresh coat of reassuring paint.

The King’s Speech, then, is the ultimate, conservative, middlebrow, made-to-order Oscar contender.

Hamish Ford is a lecturer in film, media and cultural studies at the University of Newcastle in Australia.

Watch the trailer for The King’s Speech:

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