Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Rooting for the King's Speech

Clues that the film The King’s Speech was headed to the top came quickly. Our local metro newspaper had an article referencing the movie on the Opinion Exchange page. This was the first hint which registered with me.

It was one of my mornings for a quick scan of the headlines. I must confess the gist of the article was missed on me. However, when I noticed another reference to the movie shortly thereafter I started to feel Oscar vibes.

When articles about films move from the entertainment section into what I call the thinking part of the paper there’s a logical assumption that here no light fare is being discussed. Curiosity piqued, I sought information the easy way.

I picked up the phone and called a friend who follows movies pretty closely. Asked if he knew anything about The King’s Speech he said, “Not really. It was being discussed at work. They were talking pretty highly of it.”

The reason I was poky in doing my own research is maybe because, as Americans, a title with the word King in it doesn’t entirely set us on fire. We threw in the towel on kings nearly 250 years ago as some of us recall.

Among our grievances, mostly against Parliament, in a clash that eventually took us to war with England, was the issue about taxes. We didn’t want to pay import tax on their tea. We tossed the tea into Boston harbor and have been a nation of coffee drinkers ever since.

Anyone growing up since the mid-twentieth century has had only the experience of a Queen on the English throne.

We’ve known Queen Elizabeth all our lives – her family, the corgis, the royal estates and Buckingham Palace too. We don’t have any immediate association with the word king. There's a sort of blank when it comes to that.

We’re very struck on the English monarchy as long as there’s a pond between the throne and us. We’re conscious and tender about our preemptive strikes for freedom way back when. The right to worship as we choose (or not at all), no taxation without representation – that sort of thing.

So we can’t sidle up to the monarchy too cozily after all this time. We fear the English would soon have us sitting down to crumpets and tea. We’d be right where we began. We’d have to answer to those Revolutionary boys in homespun cloth and colonist women who won our Stars and Stripes for us.

On the other hand, the English did us a huge favor about seventy years ago. We, and the democratic world, owe them big.

They were the strong defense against the mortal enemy as the United States held out for peace, choosing to remain neutral. Armies for war marched across Europe. War planes brought terror to citizenry never before so caught in the crosshairs of destruction and doom.

The English dared and defied Hitler. It was a courageous stand built on the deathly calm conviction that there was no other choice.

This is where the man who truly would be king – Albert Frederick Arthur George – makes his appearance. The film opens when he holds the title of Duke of York. His brother is heir apparent and their father George V is still the wearer of the crown.

Events unfold as even the most casual student of history knows they will. David, or Edward as he becomes when he is crowned king, has fallen madly in love with socialite Wallis Simpson from Baltimore. He forfeits the throne for the love of his life leading to the impromptu succession of his younger brother.

The new king becomes George VI. He has no wish to be king. He would shirk from it if he had that instinct in him to shirk from royal obligations, which he does not. As a member of the family he calls “the firm” he is above all willing to shoulder kingly duties.

It’s not the responsibility that paralyzes him even though – as he points out in a moment of despair - he has no training, no education, no credentials to show the world he is prepared for this position as countries, including his own, teeter at the brink of war.

He is cowed by the stammer that has affected his speech since he was four or five. As the monarchy joins the modern age, and BBC airs royal speeches into every home in the United Kingdom, the new king is at a standoff with himself.

He is forced to face and do something about the speech impediment that has cast a shadow, larger than the shadow cast by his older brother, over his full potential as an effective modern monarch.

The King's Speech, which of course deals about this very matter of George VI’s speech difficulty, is a movie must-see. It’s not only superb from the historic context (which fascinates from that perspective for those who like history).

The interpersonal aspects are acted out brilliantly. It’s a psychological thriller as the relationship between the king and his speech therapist develops.

The Harley Street clinician, an Australian who has just the right combination of compassion and prodding insistence, keeps working patiently with the king who flings a stimulating mix of obstinacy and embarrassed male pride into their sessions.

The men grow in respect for each other but you can feel it being hammered out. Trust has to be established. The instinct for knowing when someone is genuinely caring towards you has to be acknowledged and acted on.

Colin Firth as the needy but touchy monarch and Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, his speech tutor trying to open his shuttered past, do justice to roles that require consummate restraint and passion.

There's the inner struggle as the king works to master the stammer. The facial contortions as he battles to get the words out, the anguish felt by his wife and the disappointment of his British audiences grip you. You can see the panic he just barely keeps contained as he struggles in front of the microphone.

You find yourself rooting for him as the poor man literally writhes in turmoil as the words die on his tongue. You realize how awful it is for him. He must sound the decisive monarch of the English Empire that rules a quarter of the globe and he can’t make his words march to his own tune.

In a bit of irony the film shows the king and his family watching tape of Hitler haranguing the German crowds. Hitler holds them with effortless mastery. The speech is a torrent that runs on. The crowds soak it up, responding wildly as if they can’t get enough.

Ultimately this film, with messages at many levels, left me with two particular thoughts. One is the power of choice. Civilization at times rests on thin threads. How fortunate for threads spun on resolute choices for good at critical times.

The second point I took home underlies the importance of teachers and all who work in teaching or mentoring situations. The film shows a mentor's dedication to a difficult student. Even when the student is a king.

The royal wardrobe is worth some attention too. Helena Bonham Carter as George VI’s loyal and loving wife – the Queen Mum of post-war England – holds her own in this film which is correctly focused on the king and his speech therapist.

Ro Giencke - 2011

1 comment:

  1. Too hear the King's war speech to the English, follow the link below: