17 March 2011


Films about historical characters seem to have a certain narrative arc: a particular individual, not obviously different from other individuals, has some historical challenge thrust upon him.  In meeting that challenge, he has to evolve from person to personage, someone who actually changes the world the rest of us merely inhabit. 

Some of these films focus on the world's slow recognition of the hero's quality, and their substance is mostly comprised of external events, often extravagantly spectacular--The Ten Commandments, Gandhi, Braveheart.  Others show the inner drama that leads to a paradigm shift in the hero's self-definition, his own slow recognition that he has to allow himself to become 'mover and shaker,' and the epic or tragic consequences of that change.  The best films in this genre--like Lawrence of Arabia-- depict both aspects of the hero's transformation.

The King's Speech--for those of you who spent the year in Tierra del Fuego--won several Oscars, including Best Picture.  It's an affecting and well-acted movie, a real crowd-pleaser.  It tells the story of Albert Frederick Arthur George, Duke of York, younger son of George V, who begins as the stammerer who can't deliver the bread-and-butter speeches to which the royal family is heir and ends, unexpectedly, by becoming King George VI.  This is accomplished with the help of his speech therapist Lionel Logue, who also serves him as a psychotherapist of sorts.  Their relationship is dramatized quite movingly, and as Logue's daughter-in-law points out in his son Mark Logue's book, Logue became "a super good daddy where George V had been a ghastly one."

The movie builds up to the eponymous 'speech' which the recently-crowned king has to deliver on the BBC.  Logue coaches him through the broadcast phrase by phrase, one treacherous consonant after another.  Afterwards, the king is applauded by his own staff and that of the BBC, all congratulating him on his successful delivery.  Fade to black.  An epilogue (epi-Logue?) informs us that Logue coached him through many further speeches, and that they remained friends for life.

Here's my trouble with that ending.  The Duke of York's real challenge has nothing to do with learning to simulate kingship successfully by not stammering under pressure.  His real challenge, like Hamlet's, is to become a King.  As a constitutional monarch, he has little real governing power, but his influence as a rallying point for his subjects is immense.  That climactic broadcast, on Christmas Day 1939, is a radio address to all the peoples of imperial Britain, all across the globe, and is meant to steel them to fight the new war with Germany, less than twenty years after the Great War to end all wars.  

Any real solution to the self-consciousness which propagated his stammer should have featured his recognizing that what counted in the moment wasn't his speech itself, but the war it was supposed to be about.  He needed to come to experience himself in the act of speaking not as a private individual struggling with the letter 'K' but rather as a King inspiring his country to withstand and prevail against the necessary horrors to come.  He needed to learn to speak in a voice not personal but 'trans-personal,' or perhaps 'supra-personal.'  Continual coaching from his substitute father is not a real solution, merely an accommodation. 

That's all very well, I hear you saying, but maybe that's just how it happened.  Well, okay, the terms of the relationship between George VI and Lionel Logue may be fixed by history, and only Hollywood changes history that cavalierly.  Nevertheless, the way the supporting cast is depicted is subject to the director not to Clio.  Those people congratulating the king after his speech seem to express nothing more complicated than approval and relief. There are no shadows on those faces, no sense of foreboding, no evident anxiety about the gathering war.  It strengthens the impression that the dramatic heart of the moment really is the speech, not the war.  To me, that's an artistic failure.  Or is it just that we're all so post-modern that we can no longer imagine any mode of being in the world beyond the purely personal?  That's what's wrong with this picture.

1 comment:

  1. Himal Mitra--I believe the movie appealed to intelligent audiences.
    And I and others with me understood what was 'up' with that successful
    speech--informing the populace of an oncoming wwwwar.