I will be honest. I did not expect to like The King’s Speech nearly as much as I did when I saw it this weekend. The previews generally left me with the following impression: handsome, wealthy heterosexual white man has speech impediment, undergoes Eliza Doolittle transformation, becomes King of England, triumphs. Also, Geoffrey Rush acts outrageous. What I was surprised to discover (though perhaps I shouldn’t have been) is that while this was a film about a wealthy heterosexual white man with a speech impediment, its narrative arc–while borrowing many of the conventions of the “makeover” film–is hardly that simplistic. After all, this is really a film about disability and about abuse and about the permanent impact of both. And as such, it is a film that subtly deconstructs power without tell you it’s doing so. Fair warning: spoilers below.
By way of a brief summary, The King’s Speech , directed by Tom Hooper and written by David Seidler, depicts the life (with some deviations from actual history) of Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the man who eventually becomes King George VI. The film opens as he is set to deliver his first public address at Wembley. Afflicted since childhood with a debilitating stammer, he is shown in obvious agony as he prepares for the appearance, and indeed, his radio audience is met with near silence and brief spurts of unintelligible speech as he attempts to choke his way through the speech. The scene is positively excruciating.
As the film progresses, Albert’s wife Elizabeth (the fabulous Helena Bonham Carter) solicits the services of a–you guessed it–quirky and unorthodox speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian Pygmalion (rhyme both unfortunate and irresistible) who helps him prepare for public appearances whilst also acting as a kind of psychotherapist, gradually getting to the bottom of Albert’s intense emotional pain, brought on by a lifetime of what amounts to emotional and occasionally physical abuse at the hands of his parents, brother, and caregivers.
This would all still have a “poor little rich boy” feel to it if the story were not accompanied by a rich and emotional documentation of the British Empire in decline. Both the interior and exterior sets are marked by a palpable sense of decay. Everything–even the lavish fixtures in the royal palace–looks positively ancient and creaky, a monument to faded glory. I was hoping to find a better image of Logue’s office, but this will have to do. You can see the layers of paint coming off the walls and a corner of this sad old Victorian sofa, a piece of furniture on which the camera fixates–centering it in a particularly prolonged shot, when Albert first meets Logue. Upon entering the room, he sits down on one side of it and seems almost swallowed by it. The shot makes his diffident, snobbish attitude seem immediately ridiculous.
And, in fact, there are many scenes that make ridiculous the entire notion of royalty as the British monarchy is steadily moving toward a more ceremonial and indeed nearly irrelevant role. There is a scene where George V, Albert’s father– previously seen terrorizing his adult son by forcing him to read the speech the King has just delivered in hearty, stentorian tones, berating him for his cowardice and inability to even spit out one word (Colin Firth’s ability to telegraph repressed emotional pain is pretty astonishing)–is shown near death, demented. He is so weak and unaware of what’s going on that a servant has to hold his hand to help him sign an official document.
I was initially leery of the film’s portrayal of Wallis Simpson, the woman Albert’s brother, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne to marry. Twice-divorced and *gasp* American, she was the target of some pretty vicious gossip. Yet the film is really portraying the monarchy’s prejudices against Wallis and reveals their snobbery for what it is. Albert is, perhaps, justified in his concerns that his brother cannot get his head out of his own ass long enough to even think about this dude named Hitler who is proving to be a bit more of a problem than anyone had anticipated, but there is something almost pathetic about the way Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother) brushes past her at a party dressed in the frippery of the Victorian era while Wallis stands there statuesque and stylish and looking much more like the person I would like to have a drink with.
In other words, this is a film capable of creating sympathetic royal characters without necessarily celebrating or glamorizing the system they represent. It has its share of “prince imprisoned by his royal duties” moments, but most of these come from Albert’s insufferably self-involved brother and are played as a kind of laughable melodrama. Yes, the royals are constrained by tradition, but the film manages to make this revelations more profound than it usual is. We discover, for example, that Albert’s insistence that Logue respect royal traditions–even to the point of calling him a traitor to the crown at one point–this is largely because the Throne absolutely terrifies him. The Sceptre is both the destiny he is eventually forced to embrace and the rod that was used to beat him into submission as a little boy.
Ultimately, the film argues, the King of England is a man who has never been able to get past the age of five, when his caregiver deliberately starved him without his parents even noticing, when his father encouraged his brother to verbally abuse him for his stammer, when his knock-knees were placed in excruciatingly painful metal braces, and when he was forced to use his right hand instead his left. The Throne, which Logue in a more brilliant-than-it-seems-on-the-surface scene shows to be a just a chair in which people have irreverently carved their names, represents a power so monolithic and impenetrable, so layered in arcane traditions and pieties that it eclipses the subjectivity of everyone in its shadow–even that of the man who sits in it.
The film opens with text that talks about the fact that King George V ruled a quarter of the world’s people, and the film visually telegraphs the fact that this is about to come to an end, that the dominance of the British monarchy is pretty much over, but that it’s ability to terrify, to abuse and oppress remains very much alive. Ultimately, Firth’s character says, he only has power because the people believe that he speaks for them, and he cannot even do that much. But as Logue eventually gets him to say, he deserves to be heard not because he is royal but because he is a man with a voice just like every other man.
Insofar as this is a Pygmalion narrative, we get plenty of conventional “makeover” tropes, including a montage in which Firth, Rush, and sometimes Carter go through vocalization exercises and moments of intense personal revelation (still tear-jerking even though we’re conditioned to expect them). What I did appreciate, however, is that though this is a Pygmalion narrative, there was no Eliza Doolittle “Rain in Spain” moment, no sudden or permanent transformations. Albert continues to struggle with his stammer throughout the film despite moments of progress and frequently reverts back to square one in times of intense emotional stress. The climax of the film hinges on whether or not he will be able to successfully deliver a radio address about the newly declared war with Germany, an address that is meant to comfort and encourage its listeners. And even though convention and history dictate that the speech must be delivered successfully, that success qualified and incomplete. It is a reminder that the King is living with an essentially permanent disability, that the scars of his childhood will never completely be healed but that ultimately the demystification of the monarchy and even the British Empire would wind up being a pretty good thing for everyone concerned.
That soundtrack for that scene is the Second Movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, easily one of my favorite pieces of music. While its drama probably seems overwrought and heavy-handed, there is a poignancy to the juxtaposition of Albert’s haltingly delivered speech with the music of Beethoven, also an abused child, a piece of music composed while he was almost completely deaf. It would be easy to say something very trite about the power of the human spirit or something here, but ultimately I actually think it is a statement about human frailty and damage and the moments of grace that emerge from the wreckage.
I won’t claim for a second that this is a perfect film, either as a film itself or as a commentary on the dynamics of power. The moment when Logue’s lack of formal credentials emerges the day before his coronation feels slightly contrived, though to Seidler’s credit this is played off as a momentary tension between the King and his therapist rather than a cataclysmic rupture.
And of course, this is a film about the royal family that centers the royal family’s experiences, and as such we see little of the people they supposedly rule. The scene in which Albert delivers his climactic speech shows the faces of all those listening–middle class, military, servants, factory workers–which serves as the film’s only real commentary on the vast structural inequalities in Britain. Lionel Logue, an Australian, is our only representative from the wider British Empire, though we are repeatedly reminded that the British snobs think he is a backwoods rube not good enough to play the role of Richard III for a local amateur theatre society (though the scene in which he auditions sets him up as an interesting foil, a man who is capable of delivering the lines of a king though not with the right accent/breeding). This was, of course, the time in history when British imperial authorities in Australia were rounding up indigenous children and taking them from their parents and native cultures in order to be educated (indoctrinated) as Europeans.
But then again, the film isn’t trying to comment on that, so it’s hard to criticize it for not doing something it never claimed to be attempting in the first place. It is, all in all, a very small story about personal problems and personal relationships that serve as metonymy for the larger dynamics of power and abuse. I won’t argue that this is a subversive or even a liberatory film, but it is much more than it appears on the surface, and it richly rewards a careful viewer.