“Three kings in one year” is the chapter heading for 1936 in The Long Week-End, Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s social history of Great Britain for the years between the wars. Still one of the most insightful and readable accounts of those years, Graves and Hodge’s 1941 study mentions only in passing the central conceit of Tom Hooper’s new film: “...the King made a broadcast speech, in which he dedicated himself to National Service. It was noted with relief that his voice, though hesitant, carried well and that he only showed one slight trace of a stammer” (357). The King’s Speech is a backstage view of royal life and particularly of the Duke of York’s (Colin Firth) arduous preparations for his reign. King George V (Michael Gambon) died in January 1936, leaving the throne to the charismatic but feckless Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) who abdicated eleven months later. Against his own wishes, the younger brother became King George VI on the eve of World War Two and, more importantly for the film, in an era of mass communication when royalty were no longer distant figures but voices broadcast into their subjects’ living rooms.
Speaking of a “behind the scenes” look at this historical moment seems particularly apt given that the film functions at one level as a film about theater—political theater staged with the highest stakes as the world collapses into global warfare. Like Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999) which used the stormy partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan as an entry point into social dynamics of the nineteenth century British stage, Hooper’s film focuses on the personal triumph of King George’s speech therapy and the rich-yet-trying friendship with his therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Around the edges of this central relationship is the rise of Hitler, the maneuvering of Churchill, and the transition from Stanley Baldwin to Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister. The tension in the film is largely produced by the King’s rehearsals for major public performances—his coronation and his first radio broadcast about the war. Colin Firth fills these rehearsals with self-hating grimaces and delivers each line as though ripping through taciturnity. His portrayal of the King is modeled on the restraint of his breakout role as Mr. Darcy in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, though without the damp-shirted virility that propelled him to stardom. Instead, we have a fine actor playing a bad one.
Playing his role as the King, the second son of George V, Firth’s character fears his subjects’ scorn while accepting his fate as their figurehead and national emblem. Looking and sounding the part of monarch is essential to reassuring the public and to retaining the dwindling power of the monarchy. Pretending to have power is the fate of modern British royalty, and in the modern technological era the voice is paramount in this pretense.
Today, new communication technologies such as television and the Internet allow unprecedented access to the up-to-the-second thoughts of public (and private) figures, but The King’s Speech looks back with a kind of wistfulness to the age of the wireless and the newsreel camera as an analogue to our contemporary scene. The Archbishop (Derek Jacobi) notes that mass media is a Pandora’s box that cannot be closed, and we, along with George VI, must agree. Twitter feeds, Facebook walls, and YouTube’s viral videos all seem an extension of Pandora’s furies, and thus we sympathize with the new King who is asked to do what his grandfather never would have. But we also see an era when the politician has much more control over his self-presentation. In a few public appearances, he must act braver than and more eloquent than he really is, but those times are limited and brief.
The film makes much of King George’s troubles with the wireless as a special case. He alone seems flustered by the technology, unlike his father and brother who melodiously intone their speeches. But the reality is that many people struggled to adapt to these new modes of communication. At King George VI’s actual coronation, public attention focused less on the new king’s performance than on the BBC commentator who fell into incoherence while describing the ceremonial sailing of the King’s Fleet: “Now the whole ruddy Fleet is gone… Nothing between me but sea and sky… Nothing between me but sea and sky….” The BBC dodged the incident by reporting the following day that the commentary had been “unsatisfactory.”
The King’s Speech depicts political theater, but what exactly are the film’s politics? Perhaps its neatest trick is the way it generates sympathy and even pity for some of the world’s most privileged people. Logue’s methods include a dash of psychoanalysis which the royal family denounces as “getting personal,” but, following the conventions of popular narrative cinema, the King’s condition improves as his defense against personal revelation weakens. Not merely a physical ailment, the stammer seemingly arises from an overbearing father and the cruel discipline of a nanny. This aspect of the film may be its flimsiest, a motivation drawn from Hollywood’s creakiest chest of dusty Freudianism. There is a kind of political obsequiousness in treating so seriously (and flat-footedly) the sad childhood of royalty. Absent is the breezy, cheerful irony of Alan Bennett’s novella The Uncommon Reader (2007) which imagines an aged Queen Elizabeth II struggling with the public shame of growing erudite. Without condemning or simply mocking the royal family, Bennett manages to generate sympathy while retaining a skeptical eye toward the trials of maintaining a public persona and persisting in his leftist populism.
But the film’s emotional core and its most engaging political content is the friendship between Lionel Logue and the King (called, after a tussle with nicknames, “Bertie”). So few films manage to depict friendships among adult men. Rio Bravo (1959) is in a class by itself in many ways, but the most impressive aspect of that film is the warmth and complexity seen in the several generations of men whose friendships deepen throughout their ordeal. Today’s go-to genre for male bonding is the “bromance” popularized by Judd Apatow (Superbad, Funny People, etc.) as an extension of the overgrown man-child comedies of Adam Sandler. This genre, whose charms depend on how hilarious you find unemployed men in their thirties sucking bongs and drifting through gay panic, seems to be the best that current Hollywood can do to represent homo-sociality. In this shadow, The King’s Speech casts a refreshing light by showing two happily married, middle-aged men with children growing emotionally close through a shared project despite their radical differences in class, status, and even nationality. A recurring theme in the film is that Logue’s Australian heritage makes him unfit for British society. At an audition for Richard III, a casting director tells Logue that he doesn’t think their play needs a king “from the colonies.” And there is concern that elocution lessons from an Australian will lead to a rustic accent. Lionel and Bertie’s hard-earned intimacy gives the film its dramatic force, its emotional sensibility, and its political nuance—a remarkable feat in the absence of other models.
Comedian Eddie Izzard has observed that British cinema often suffers from making unambitiously small films with scenes of stuffy elites haltingly entering rooms, restraining their speech, and proceeding to arrange matchsticks. This, quips Izzard, does not sell popcorn. The King’s Speech certainly flirts with becoming an “arranging matchsticks” film full of gaps, silences, hesitations, and subtle performances of understated drama. And yet, the way it conveys stage fright, the sweep of history, and the compassion of two men elevates it above any small film morass. The strident eloquence of Hitler, which acts as a counterpoint to King George’s petrified stammer, provides a sinister undercurrent. In the end, stern British stick-to-itiveness prevails, and viewers may leave a bit more concerned for their leaders despite their privilege. In our modern technocracy, it is refreshing to be reminded that two people sharing faith and fate might transcend the anomie of their day.
Charles Andrews is Assistant Professor of English at Whitworth University.