Thursday, February 03, 2011

The King's Speech (12A)

The director asks us to sympathise with "that poor man", King George VI
Directed by Tom Hooper
Written by David Seidler
On general release from 7th January 2011

Talk of The King's Speech has given a new meaning to the word 'hyperbole' over the last few months. Even nearly a month after its general release date, it is still taking in millions at the box office, drawing in many who wouldn't normally visit the cinema, and the older generations in particular. In no small way, it was given a boost by the twelve Oscar nominations it received last week, which came on top of sixteen awards it had already won. The time has come for a critical evaluation.

As almost everyone must know by now, the focus of the film is the struggle of 'Bertie' (Colin Firth) - the Duke of York and future King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions - to overcome his stammer, and therefore his dread of public speaking. As the film progresses from the death of his father King George V (Michael Gambon), to the abdication of his brother Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), it becomes increasingly clear that 'Bertie' will have to address his subjects with increasing frequency, and on increasingly important occasions. With World War Two looming, 'Bertie' tackles his fear with the help of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), urged on by his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter), known to most us as the now late mother of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.

The relationship between 'Bertie' and Logue is definitely the film's strongest suit. Firth and Rush are fine actors, and an often witty, yet sensitive script allows both plenty of opportunities to shine. Firth plays the royal as an uptight man whose stiff upper lip is prone to the occasional quiver, whilst Rush is brilliant when he punctures the pretensions of his client, and of the British establishment in general. In the end, a friendship is formed, based on mutual respect.

People who stammer will appreciate many of the physical and mental challenges that 'Bertie' goes through. Firth has the speech disorder down pat, and his performance is therefore pure Oscar bait. At my screening, it was clear that the man in front of me stammers, and he certainly seemed to recognise some of the blocking and word avoidance that was so perfectly brought to life by Firth.

On the other hand, it must be considered that while 'Bertie' was clearly under some pressure to improve his fluency, 'ordinary' people who stammer face far greater struggles in their day to day lives. In real life, Winston Churchill (here played quite badly by a miscast Timothy Spall), had the monarch's dysfluency edited out of broadcasts. However, 99.99% of those who stammer will not be so insulated by great riches, and suffer serious discomfort on a daily basis, often with a major impact on their own careers and social lives. For these reasons, The King's Speech is far from being the My Left Foot of stammering.

With that in mind, The King's Speech is at its weakest when the director wants us to feel sorry for this emperor, who ruled over around a quarter of the world's population during his reign. At one stage, 'Bertie' is compared to an "indentured servant", a comparison far more fitting for many in colonial India, for example. Later on, this stupendously wealthy individual is described as "that poor man". When 'Bertie' describes how his elder brother teased him, and his father bullied him, it is possible to sympathise on an almost theoretical level, but no more than that.

Another major problem is the film's conventional line on the events of the 1930s. It doesn't seem to 'make up' any history, as much as it parrots the myths peddled by the ruling class since World War Two began. The seismic events of the last Great Depression, the Spanish Revolution/Civil War, and the rise of fascism in Europe barely warrant a mention, even though they would surely have concerned the rulers of the British Empire far more than a stammering figurehead.

When 'Bertie' finally conquers his terror and speaks to the nation, we are supposed to believe that he becomes a "symbol of resistance" to the people conscripted into an army defending that Empire around the world, and those dodging bombing raids in working class areas. When Edward relinquishes the throne, he is shown listening quietly to his brother's speech, when in fact he was courting leading members of the Third Reich, and offering himself up as a potential puppet king. The cult of Churchill is boosted by his depiction as a far-sighted pragmatist who knew that Edward would fall due to his pronounced Nazi sympathies. In reality, Churchill led attempts to keep Edward on the throne, despite the former's worries that German expansion would cut across British elite interests.

In short, we are expected to buy the idea that 'Bertie' was an ordinary man from a family like ours in many ways, when he was actually from a family that waded in the blood, sweat and tears of the global poor, and hoped that Hitler would bring the working class of Europe to heel so Britain wouldn't have to. There is something deeply troubling about the media buzz around a film that invites us to side with the super rich, in an era where the super rich are once more waging brutal and unrelenting war against everyone else.
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