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FILM REVIEW: THE KING'S SPEECH

 

 

By Melynda Nuss

LOS ANGELES, 25 FEBRUARY 2011 — Scenario: A burgeoning new technology allows a socially awkward young man to expand his social network and gain multitudes of new friends and fans. And the technology is not Facebook and the awkward young man is not Mark Zuckerberg. Rather, as put forward The King’s Speech, the technology is radio, the young man, the Duke of York, later King George VI.

So why should we care so much about the speech problems of a dead British monarch? It would be easy to dismiss The King’s Speech as an inspirational historical drama. The cinematographer gives us plenty of shots of castles glimpsed across the mist, girls in fluttery dresses riding in roadsters, fine wood-paneled libraries, vintage fur collars. The historical figures are all familiar faces from the History Channel. There’s Neville Chamberlain, looking spineless in his little mustache as he sips a cup of tea. Winston Churchill  — a bit more Richard Nixon than W.C. Fields — galumphs across the screen, making supportive remarks in council and catty ones at parties. I’m not sure where Eve Best perfected her imitation of Wallis Simpson — or what she’ll do with it after this film —  but she and Guy Pierce (as the abdicator Edward VIII) look exactly like they’ve come right out of a commemorative portrait. Even looking at the child princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, it’s easy to tell which sister will be the Queen and which the unhappy divorcée.

But for all of its historical background, The King’s Speech has something much more modern in mind. How should a king speak to his people? In one of the movie’s first scenes, the future King George VI (Colin Firth) confronts a microphone the size of a dinner plate, with a stadium full of his countrymen waiting expectantly beyond. How can he talk to them? What should he say?


Colin Firth in The King's Speech
Photo: courtesy of the Weinstein Company

The future king, Albert Frederick Arthur George, known for most of the movie by his nickname, "Bertie," faces more obstacles in communicating than most. He has had a stammer since childhood, and can barely breathe out a sentence in private, much less in public. But the problem is more than just Bertie’s personal difficulties. As his dying father, King George V, observes, kings are increasingly required to communicate. In the father’s day, it was enough to make a few public appearances, cut a few ribbons, shake a few hands and return to the comfortable aristocratic confines of the castle. But now, the father says, with evident distaste, the people expect the king to come into their living rooms, through this new contraption the wireless. He shakes his head in bemusement. Bertie and, more likely, his brother David — the outgoing socialite who becomes Edward VIII — will be the ones who learn to do that.

The King’s Speech, in other words, makes a nice bookend to The Social Network. In one, a semi-autistic social climber invents a new technology that will allow him to communicate with his friends. In the other, a stammering aristocrat uses a new technology so that the whole country can be his friend. There are significant differences, of course. The Social Network deals with competition and invention; The King’s Speech with preserving hereditary social privilege in a brave new world. But both deal with the same problem — how to preserve intimacy as the self spreads itself out over a larger social network.


Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech
Photo: courtesy of the Weinstein Company

Interesting, then, that The Social Network is largely dystopian about the new technology, while The King’s Speech is utopian and heroic, and to a large extent this has to do with the nature of the self that is being broadcast over the airwaves. Zuckerberg, as The Social Network portrays him, is audacious, competitive, and perhaps even a bit hostile. He is fascinating to watch, but his intent in invading your living room is clearly to be the smartest guy there. Bertie, by contrast, only wants to spread love and national pride. Near the beginning of the story, tasked with making up a bedtime story for his children, he tells an impromptu story of a penguin (clearly inspired by his own tuxedo) who cannot hug his daughters because his flippers are too short; by the end of the story he turns into a giant bird who can wrap his daughters in his enormous wings. The radio, for The King’s Speech, is the King’s way of giving the whole world a hug.


Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network
Photo by Merrick Morton/Columbia Pictures

Hence, the self-help vibe that makes The King’s Speech seem, at times, like something from the Oprah Network. In order to make a good speech, the King must be, in actuality, a good man. He is always good hearted, but he has been blocked by years of aristocratic trampling. The child Bertie — knock-kneed, cursed with digestive problems in addition to his stammer, forced to write with his right hand when he was naturally left-handed — was hardly the manly son that his father wanted. It becomes clear over the course of the movie that Bertie’s stammer comes partially from being shushed as a child. His cure, then, involves not only diction and breathing exercises, but psychoanalysis. Like a warrior undergoing an ordeal before battle, he must rehearse the past and learn to forgive before he gains the courage to speak.

He must also convert to a particularly American form of leveling democracy. After going through a string of prestigious speech therapists who recommend useless treatments based on the practices of ancient Greece and Rome, the King finally finds success in the hands of Lionel Logue, an Australian who insists on calling him "Bertie," and who (minor spoiler alert) is not even credentialed as a speech therapist, but who has learned his skills treating shell shocked veterans of the first world war. Together, Lionel and Bertie circumvent the aristocratic hierarchies that keep royals and commoners apart. They are equals and, eventually, friends.


Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech
Photo: courtesy of the Weinstein Company

If a leader undergoes this ordeal — if his heart is full of love for his people and respect for their way of life — then the new media are just as intimate as the old. As Bertie prepares to make the speech of his life, he and his friend pass through rooms filled with dignitaries and enter a curtained room almost reminiscent of a child’s pillow fort. There, Bertie can speak from the heart to his trusted friend — and as he does so, his voice goes out to all the trusted friends waiting in their homes, in the streets, outside the palace gates, and within the halls of power. The intimate is the public and the public is intimate.

It is an ancient trick, this idea of the handicapped speaker. "Rude am I in my speech / And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace," says Shakespeare’s Othello, right before he knocks the audience dead with the fantastic story that he used to win a woman well out of his league — one to which his judge replies "I think this tale would win my daughter too." The great Greek orator Demosthenes is supposed to have stuttered. Cicero himself, in his De Oratore, has his main character Crassus confess to a fear of public speaking. Confessing to being a bad public speaker humanizes the orator; it makes him one of us. It also shows a healthy respect for the audience — as Cicero’s Crassus points out, a little fear helps make sure that the speaker doesn’t waste the audience’s time with something that is not worth saying. We are accustomed to putting our kings through a little hazing before they can address us. If they make it look too easy — like a Barack Obama — we accuse them of being too smooth. If they trip over their words — like a George W. Bush or a Sarah Palin — we accuse them of being too rough. It is nice to be reminded that sometimes a king can strike the right balance.

So which should win the prize? Do we want the optimistic film that tells us that technology can bridge seemingly unbridgeable distances? Or do we choose the more pessimistic film that reminds us that human relations are difficult, that communication is uncertain, and that even as we send our status updates to friends across the globe we might not be able to say what matters to the ones closest to us? Can we even tell which one is which? At the end of the day, both The Social Network and The King’s Speech show us how difficult it is to say what we really mean, how impossible it is to bridge the individual and social structures that bind us, and how sometimes, in the most fragile of circumstances, our longing can allow us to invent something remarkable — something that can make it seem like that gap does not exist.

Melynda Nuss is a writer and an Associate Professor of Romantic Literature and Drama at the University of Texas - Pan American. She last wrote on Darren Aronofsky’s film Black Swan for Culturekiosque.

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