What an intense cinema moment we seem to be living through. The general public is getting as excited as the critics about movies. Here in the UK, at least, everyone seems to be making the effort to see The King’s Speech, and it is hard to find someone with a word to say against it. The competing entry on the cinema scene at the moment is Black Swan, which for all its intensity (and perhaps because of it), I believe is by far the stronger entry of the two. The King’s Speech may make for easier watching, but Black Swan takes filmmaking to a new level.
I should have been prepared to be let down a little by The King’s Speech: the usual problem of glowing reviews ratcheting my hopes too high. The King’s Speech is a period drama directed by Tom Hooper: set in the 1930s, it centres on ‘Bertie’ the Duke of York (Colin Firth), whose stutter makes for awkward public engagements. As it becomes increasingly clear that Bertie will one day become king, he reluctantly submits to an Australian actor-turned-speech-therapist (Geoffrey Rush) to help him overcome his speech impediment. The film has been a hit with the public, surprising everyone with its box office takings since its opening in the UK earlier this month. Back in September, it won The People’s Choice Award at The Toronto International Film Festival in September: such an award is reassuring, because you know you’re in for a decent film, one that will be a good night out for everyone. Amélie also bagged People’s Choice in 2001: it can happen, of course, that a film that breaks new ground will still appeal to a large audience. Ideally, a film will win broad approval precisely because it represents a re-visioning of the medium. But The King’s Speech is not one of those films.
I think that the general public likes The King’s Speech for the acting, above all. That is the only element that really makes this film stand out. Colin Firth does an outstanding job with a difficult role: not only was there the challenge of portraying someone with a speech impediment, all of the intense emotion that goes along with it had to be expressed, but with the typically reserved manner of royalty. It was an extremely delicate balance to achieve, and Firth achieved it: the effect doesn’t stammer for a moment. Colin Firth, of course, has his own personal magnetism as an actor, but this alone does not account for the film’s cross-generational appeal: younger audiences may not be familiar with his heartthrob moment as Mr. Darcy in the BBC Pride and Prejudice series. Firth now may be a bit too mature to appeal to teenagers, and his role in this film is not particularly flattering: his is not the sexy British shyness of a Hugh Grant character, but a debilitating condition that makes the audience pity him.
The other source of this film’s appeal is its story of overcoming an obstacle. There are more shy people in the world than our reality-TV culture would have us acknowledge, and all of them can understand the horror of the Bertie’s situation. Of course, it is not mere shyness that affects him: it is a speech impediment which can be more broadly defined as a physical and psychological obstacles, and this is something with which everyone can identify. When the king makes his speech at the end of the film, it is an incredibly affecting scene for a number of reasons. Making his first live broadcast as King, Bertie succeeds, with difficulty, to overcome a problem that has caused him great unhappiness in his life. What makes the moment even more emotional is that the speech marks a crucial point in history, and we watch with privileged proximity both the king making the speech and his subjects as they listen to it.
The moment of the king’s speech is nonetheless a strange one. The film has acquainted us with the king’s problems, exposing his personal life and the source of his stutter. We have developed great sympathy for him: rather than envying him his privilege, we see that upper class reserve creates people ill-adapted to interact normally with others. Those born into royalty are coerced into devoting their lives to a position emptied of power. The significance of the role’s symbolism is questionable: would the people really have had more trouble coping with the war without words of encouragement from the king? The film effectively replicates the way in which your own problems are magnified in your mind, so that they become as important, or more important, than anything else going on around you. Jiří Menzel did the same with his Oscar-winning Closely Observed Trains (1966), set in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia: for most of the film WWII remains a peripheral matter in the life of the film’s young protagonist, Milos, who is chiefly concerned with losing his virginity. Menzel’s film cast a satirical and yet compassionate gaze on this character—his concerns are selfish and petty, and yet reflect the imperative to get on with life as normally as possible, whatever the circumstances. Also, his problem relates to growing up, and once he has resolved it, he is ready to devote himself wholeheartedly to the resistance.
In the case of a king, the situation is a little different. The privileged are routinely sheltered from the worst disasters. It is understandable for Bertie to be preoccupied with his stutter: unlike most people’s personal problems. his is exposed to the whole British Empire, and hinders him in his principal duty as a public figure. But as much as we may feel proud of Bertie when he manages to give his speech, our gaze suddenly widens to the general public from which the king is typically separated. In contrast with the king’s pampered weakness, the subjects take on a nobility which becomes tragic when you remember that many of them will die in the war, while Bertie’s only ordeal will be further speeches to make.
As it has been released only a few months before the upcoming wedding of Bertie’s great grandson, there has been some speculation that this film is intended to stoke public enthusiasm for royalty. Although The King’s Speech does provoke sympathy for its main character, you don’t have to look far below the film’s surface to understand that whole institution was outdated even 60 years ago. It doesn’t really matter, in any case, whether Kate and William commemorative wedding mugs sell in their hundreds or in their hundred thousands: public enthusiasm or lack of it is not going to change the royal family anytime soon. More significant, I would argue, is the film’s relationship to elected government. It is feared that we are entering a period of depression, and the UK is certainly entering straitened times. With a primarily grey-green aesthetic focusing on the slummy streets, gloomy rooms and tatty furniture of the middle classes, filmed with baroque angles and a bilious fisheye lens, the film defies nostalgia for the 1930s: it makes you feel profoundly grateful for modern Britain, with its colour and comforts. For all its irreverence, a film that inspires pity for royalty and thankfulness for the present mess we’re in is a film that is conservative at heart.