Father Steve reviews "The King's Speech," reflecting upon our fascination with royalty as well as the unifying power of courage in the face of weakness and trepidation.
The leading Oscar contender this year appears to be The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth as King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as his speech therapist, Lionel Logue. The story is about George VI’s speech impediment and how, through the coaching and unorthodox approach of Logue, the King was enabled to meet not only the challenges of the abdication of his brother (Edward VIII played by Guy Pearce) and the advent of the Second World War, but also the expectations of the modern state in which the symbolism of a monarch’s or statesman’s presence necessitates skills at public speaking. The film begins with the future king, Prince Albert (he would take the name George upon his accession to the British throne) attempting to deliver an address at the opening of a stadium filled with a multitude of onlookers. Anyone who has fear of public speaking will understand immediately the fear and hesitation that overtakes the Prince. The reason for his apprehension is revealed to be more than just anxiety: it is caused by a painful stutter. We later learn that this impediment has earned Prince Albert the disdain and mockery of his family and the embarrassment of years of tried and failed therapies.
The Prince’s stalwart wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), follows a lead to a ramshackle tenement seeking to employ the services of Lionel Logue. Logue is an actor and an Australian, two facts that place him well outside the Prince’s social circle. His character serves as the route of access for the common man into the highest echelon of the British class system. Logue discerns correctly that the Prince’s impediment is not just a matter of the mechanics of his mouth but of his mind. Bringing him to accept this painful truth is what the story is all about. The Prince coming to terms with his truths and with circumstances that he cannot control are portrayed to both dramatic and comic effect (why is it that we find aristocrats using profanity to be funny?). His life is a public act, and the primary expectation of a public life is to speak. The pressure of these expectations becomes all the more weighty when his elder brother abdicates the throne and Prince Albert becomes King George VI.
We live in an age that delights in seeing the “humanity” of royalty. One would think that after years of the public display of Princess Diana, our culture would have had its fill of all this, but we seem to keep on returning to that trough long after the majesty of being royal has been replaced by mere celebrity. The King’s Speech delivers on this public expectation to humanize its royal subjects. King George and his Queen are presented as an affectionate couple; they dote on their daughters and except for their family pedigree, might as well be that nice family that lives down the street. They also suffer, as we all do, from the effects of family dysfunction- distant and overbearing parents, insufferable siblings, and in the case of Wallis Simpson, notorious in-laws. We admire the King’s tenacity in the face of his frustrating life, as it seems to confirm our egalitarian sensibilities- after all, they are just like us. Perhaps.
The King’s Speech is a historical piece and a dramatization of real persons and events. The cantankerous Christopher Hitchens, while acknowledging the entertainment value of the film, has pilloried its historical inaccuracies. In regards to real history, the film might be too neat. But I also wondered while watching the film if the more interesting half of the royal pair was not getting enough attention.
The life of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the queen consort of George VI, is likely worthy of its own film. Elizabeth was a beloved and at times controversial figure whose lineage made her noble, even as she was considered a commoner. She initially wanted no part of her future husband’s family business, giving in only when reassured that the chances that her husband would become king were slim. If her husband’s willingness to speak publicly despite his stammer gave the British people courage in the face of the onslaught of the Second World War, it might have been the Queen’s resolve that gave the people the will to endure. Identified by Hitler as “the most dangerous woman in Europe,” her public statements during the war demonstrate her character. When asked whether her children would be sent to Canada where they would be out of harm’s way, the Queen responded “They will not leave without me, I will not leave without the King, and the King- he will never leave.” That’s as good a quote as anything that Churchill could have come up with! Her visits to regions devastated by the blitz were first met with anger and tossed garbage. Critiqued for her elegant dress while meeting common people in their misery she explained that if they had come to her house she knows they would have worn their best, and since she was visiting their homes, she should show them the same courtesy. When bombs fell and exploded on Buckingham Palace, she answered the threat; “I’m glad we’ve been bombed, it makes me feel I can look the east end in the face.”
As an American, it is hard for me to understand just how royalty is supposed to “work.” The whole system seems anachronistic and unfair to one brought up in a nation whose foundational mythology is all about rejecting the power of a tyrannical king. But considering the galvanizing effect of a royal family that stayed with their subjects and never let their standard be lowered over their palace while all around them the city of London was being bombarded by explosives gives me pause to consider that the purpose of cultural institutions must be greater than the pragmatic and utilitarian. There are things in life that we must do because duty calls, expectations we must live up to despite our own apparent weakness, and circumstances that demand that we muster whatever courage that we can. The King’s Speech enables one to understand the symbolic power of a monarchy and imparts a better appreciation for how a king accepting his duty to speak, even when he didn’t want to, can engender a story that has an unexpected power to move an audience to cheer him on.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.