Thursday, December 16, 2010

The King's Speech

I myself heard the King speak, on several occasions. I remember just how important his speech was to us at Christmas each year--at least among our family and friends--during the years of real hardship in England, both during and after World War II. No matter what else might be happening, the radio was switched on when it was time for the speech, and we all gathered around it in respectful silence. (I'm trying to remember what our radio looked like, or where it was in the house, but here my memory fails me. My sister will remind me if the rest are imagined rather than real recollections.) We had a big household. The old Rectory in which we lived during the war years had more than enough room for our family of four, so we housed a continuing parade of billettees and refugees, some from Bletchley Park (of "Enigma" machine fame,) some from the local RAF station down the hill at Cranfield.

The King's speech answered to our need for reassurance, continuity, the survival of social order in a time of chaos. By today's standards, the sound quality was appalling. I recall the voice as thin across the airwaves, and disrupted with static. I recall its hesitations, the lasting evidence of that stammer that plagued the King's early years, as Duke of York, and clearly caused him so much agony and self-doubt. Or was it rather the result of those qualities? The King's voice was an annual reminder of the determination and courage needed to see our country through the London Blitz, the air raids, the daily reports of the war's progress on the BBC. Quite aside from the political and the military leaders, the Churchills and the Montys, we needed a strong moral and spiritual core, and it fell principally upon this man to provide it.

So I brought a great deal of personal emotional history to the movie, The King's Speech, which makes it unsurprising that I was profoundly moved. On the one hand, it was about this one man, Bertie's struggle with his personal demons, the result of a childhood traumatized by cold, impersonal relations with his parents, the dread fear of a strict, unbending father, the painful imperative to wear leg irons, day and night, as a cure for "knock knees," and a social code that instilled a pitiless, unrelenting sense of duty. The famous stammer originated in this childhood, perhaps as a strategy for self-protection, a way to hide. It took an immense amount of inner resolve and courage to overcome it, and to fulfill the role that fell on his reluctant shoulders. Not looking much like George...

... the actor Colin Firth managed to channel the spirit of the man, the conflict between his inner "Bertie" and the "George" he was required to be, between self-doubt and duty, natural self-deprecation and disciplined acceptance of the dignity and pomp required by the role he was given to play.

I have no way to judge the historical accuracy of the film's portrayal of the relationship between the King and the commoner who helped him overcome that crippling speech impairment, but I had little trouble in accepting its dramatic propriety. Born to privilege and the expectation of deference, the Duke, and later King would have found it hard to trust himself to the mercies of a man who started out, after all, as something of a charlatan: Lionel Logue, an out-of-work actor from the Commonwealth (Australia) who was a self-taught speech therapist with neither qualifications nor credentials. Geoffrey Rush's performance in the role was, I thought, pitch perfectly in balance with Colin Firth's; Logue, too--portrayed here as a natural-born, ego-driven eccentric--had work to do in order to come to a working relationship, and finally a friendship with his royal client.

Were there gaps in this narrative, I wonder, that I filled in from my own background, my own experience of the war, my own childhood impressions of the characters involved? I'm sure. I brought with me some of that sense of awe I felt as a child for the King, that awareness of the historical import of the moment, the dangers faced and the courage that was needed to face them. To me, it was a matter of faith that this king was a great man, a man with the awesome responsibility of a national destiny on his shoulders. I recall today the sense of loss when he died, that feeling that someone irreplaceable had left us, leaving a deep and terrible void for his young daughter to fill. I was moved, too, watching this movie, to be reminded of the nobility of a true man of service; he did not ask for the power he held in his hands, did not want it, and yet devoted his life to the performance of an office that required everything he had to give. His service was untainted by ambition or personal gain. As they say, we do not make them like that any more.

I thought this was a terrific movie--poignant, intelligent, well-paced, at times even riotously funny. Its "R" rating is a travesty, resulting from the scenes where Logue urges his royal client to release his voice--as well as his inner reserves of socially unacceptable rage--in torrents of repeated curse words. The fact that the words come from the mouth of a man of exemplary integrity seems to have escaped the literal-minded censors. Do they believe their children have not heard these words a thousand times in the school yard? Would they not wish them to find inspiration in this model of courageous and self-sacrificing service? We are painfully lacking in such role models in the world today. Nobility of character--something quite different from unearned, "noble" heritage--is something that gets easily overlooked in the rush for power, wealth and fame. I say, let the children see it. The film has something of great value to be taught, not only about those who control the destiny of nations, but also about the humbling responsibility each one us bears toward our fellow beings.


mandt said...

There is a scene in 'The Queen" played by the excellent Helen Mirren, wherein Queen Elizabeth has a few brief moments of privacy while broken down at a crossing. There she wept for a few moments and then spied a 14 point buck across the meadow; one, later shot by a rentier hunter. Although the scene was considered by many to be the best of the film, I found it obscenely narcissistic and a perfect example of the nostalgic entitlement with which English aristocrats view themselves. As vile as their self consideration might seem, there is the thought that the fetish the English have for these overlords is probably what has saved English Democracy from its complex political passions. Rarely, does a human being of King George's sensibilities arrive at such an exalted responsibility.

Jackie said...

Hello, I am going to see the movie today. It is rather hard to find the movie here, I am driving a distance to see it. Thank you for the summary, I am really looking forward to it now. One thing though, do you really think we don't make one like him now? Meaning, do you think people are only out of themselves today?