Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The King's Speech

I am really, really disappointed to say that this movie is not as good as I wanted it to be, because it could have done, and still does to some extent, a service to stutterers. And indeed, I feel I understand this problem a little better now than I did before, in that I can see that it's more psychological than physical, which is why stutterers find public speaking so much more difficult than private. Although to be honest, I guess I kind of knew that before, or could have guessed it.

Here's the story: The current Queen Elizabeth's father, King George VI (played by Colin Firth), suffered from this condition, which I didn't know. He apparently made little effort to correct it until fairly late in his life since, being the second-born son of King George V, he wasn't expected to ascend to the throne and didn't have to speak in public all that much, although when he did it went horribly. As it begins to seem as though his older brother would abdicate as king, which he eventually does, Colin's character is thrust into the spotlight and gives consistently disastrous speeches. So he employs the services of a speech therapist, played by Geoffrey Rush, who is ostensibly the first common person he has ever really spoken to. The movie culminates in a radio address Colin as king has to give at the outbreak of World War II, keeping his halting speech in check.

There is something about relationships, both romantic and friendly, between royalty and commoners that lend themselves to cheesy discourse, both in movies and gossip magazines, and The King's Speech happily jumps on board with that. Geoffrey Rush's speech therapist keeps on telling the king, "You could be a great man," as though that is a really profound statement coming from a commoner, and Colin Firth's king keeps pointing out the obvious, such as when he remarks, "I can't pass laws or levy taxes, and yet I'm the king. Why?" At which point we are all supposed to tell ourselves, probably, that it's because this king really is a great man. But it's a good question: why is he great? Because he's making a concerted effort to correct a speech problem? Because he's (just barely) tolerating the assistance of a common man? Because he's not married to a divorcee? Because his wife is banal?

Actually, that's an idea that historical dramas of this style often try to push: great men have banal wives, who also happen to be really, really supportive and extremely well-dressed. Remember A Beautiful Mind? Just because Russell Crowe's wife was the one to ask him out doesn't mean she wasn't banal, because she was.

Anyway, Colin's character seems to be a bit of a big baby in this movie, and I don't feel all that sorry for him despite his trouble. There was one kind of moving scene where, at Geoffrey's suggestion, he sings what he's trying to say to get it out more fluidly, and in general, he does a pretty good job mimicking the stutter. Besides that, though, his character is a little flat. I really want to like this actor, but he just demonstrates to me time and again that he is only good at playing Mr. Darcy.

Also, this movie is almost comedically predictable. I don't think I'm ruining anything for you by telling you that the king's final speech basically goes fine, because that's obvious from the first minute of the thing. But people go nuts for movies with this kind of overly serious tone, as evidenced by the 96 percent fresh rating of The King's Speech on Rotten Tomatoes. For a discussion of why this might be, click here.

I have to give a shout-out to Helena Bonham Carter as the future Queen Mother Elizabeth, because she is really beautiful and womanly and has perfect deportment and porcelain skin, much like the Queen Mother herself, and is honestly a delight to watch if only for those reasons. But as mentioned above, she is banal, and her relationship with the king is kind of stupidly loving, unlike the probably way more intriguing one between the abdicated King Edward and his divorcee Wallis Simpson, which sadly is depicted only in one all-too-brief scene. And Helena's Queen Mother is also vomitudinously cheesy. That's not a word but it describes how she was. There is one line, which she delivers, that kind of sums up the tone of the whole shebang, from beginning to end:

"Darling. I refused your first two marriage proposals not because I didn't love you, but because I couldn't bear the idea of a royal life that wouldn't be my own. But then I heard you stammer so beautifully and I thought, what a special person," or something like that.

Barf. See what I mean?


  1. You've misquoted the final line. She says "he has such a beautiful stammer that they'll leave us alone." To the Queen Mum, the stammer is "beautiful" because of its utility; it provides the couple with the excuse to avoid the spotlight and live the sort of life she wants.

    I disagree that her character is banal. She has a dry wit and cleverness. She also has what po-mo philosophers call "liminality." Being commoner-cum-royalty, she's able to straddle the commoner/loyality divide. To Wallis and David, she insists on the proper greeting due from the King to a royal duke and duchess, in medieval fashion. To Myrtle and Lionel, meanwhile, she's able to engage with them on their level while also maintaining at least a veneer of aloofness appropriate to what she regards as her station. Far from banal, I found her to consistently entertaining to watch.

    Finally, I think it's clear in the film how George VI is great. Again, you quoted part of what the king said but left out the key thing. He can't pass laws and levy taxes, but, he says, he's king because when he speaks for speaks for the people. His greatness is to embody the people in his speeches, to speak for them. This is the greatness he achieves in the climax of the film: he expresses the true feelings of the English people in a way to inspire them to resolve for the coming struggle.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Steve, and sorry about the misquotes. I definitely shouldn't have used quotation marks since I was completely approximating.

    With respect to the king being great, he did say that it's because the people think he speaks for them, but it wasn't clear to me how he fulfilled that expectation in his final speech. Yes, he got the words out, and yes, he came out clearly against Hitler, which may have been inspirational in a way, but the predominant thought in my head is that anyone could have done those things, or if not absolutely anyone, at least many people. I could tell you, even from watching her in one scene, why Wallis Simpson might be interesting enough to watch for two hours, but I'm really just not sure from this movie why King George VI is interesting.

    As for the quote, I guess I really just thought it represented the generally cheesy tone underlying the whole movie. Also, by banal, I meant that she is a totally typical "man's woman" from start to finish such as I've seen in a zillion movies before, from "A Beautiful Mind" to "Malcolm X" to "Cinderella Man." Her man is pretty nice to her, faithful and devoted, and in return she is supportive. Not that that's not good, but it doesn't make for much dramatic tension, so why make a movie about it?

  3. Actually, historical record sheds doubt on the George VI's greatness. First of all, many if not most contemporaries of the King thought he was not the brightest bulb on the royal chandelier, if you know what I mean. Look at the quotes about him and you will come across words like moron and nitwit. He was also supportive of the British appeasement policy towards Hitler, and not as portrayed in the film a strong and early believer of confronting Germany. I will happily leave all this to artistic license, but what I found too much was the ending comments that said he became a symbol of resistance during the war with his speeches. ah, NO! that was a little chubby fellow called Churchill. We shall fight them on the beaches...

  4. Glad you agree. It seriously pisses me off how everyone else in the whole world loves this movie.