Friday, 7 January 2011

The King's Speech: morality rediscovered!

I'm sure you don't need any hype from me to encourage you to go see the acclaimed new movie The King's Speech, about pioneering Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue's efforts to help the man who was to become King George VI. 

It is sweeping the box offices and award nomination stakes here and elsewhere. 

But let me give it some hype anyway.

Because the really great thing about this movie is the sub-text on morality, duty and the importance of family life.

Why this is a great movie

There are some obvious reasons why this is a great movie. 

The fabulous cast for a starter. 

Geoffrey Rush (as Logue) is, as always, superb, and so is Colin Firth (who knew he could actually act, as opposed to just smolder and look beautifully Darcy-esq?).  The chemistry between them as they struggle with the inequality of their positions in life to become friends, as well as the mettle of the future King's character, is beautifully brought out in a great script and direction.

And there are some great performances in the supporting roles too - Michael Gambon is suitably intimidating and severe as George V (the man seems to be in everything at the moment from Dr Who to Harry P!);  Helen Bonham-Carter as Elizabeth (the current Queen's mother) is a nicely supportive wife with great antagonism to Wallis Simpson; Guy Pearce is a very convincingly dissolute Edward VIII; Derek Jacobi (still best known for his own role as a stammering ruler, in I Claudius) makes a great slimy Archbishop of Canterbury; and Anthony Andrews makes a nice Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. 

But it's the sub-plots that really make this film special

The main plotline of course concerns the heroic struggles of 'Bertie' (Prince Albert, etc, etc...George) to overcome his speech impediment in order to properly carry out his royal duties, and ultimately to take up the role of King following the abdication of his brother Edward VIII.   And of course in the contest between Australian egalitarianism (albeit to a psycho therapeutic purpose) and the trappings and expectations that come with rank.  Both struggles are gripping, keeping us constantly on the edge of our seats; both ultimately are brought to a nice balance.

It is the sub-texts though, all lightly done by inference rather than preaching, that really make this film particularly interesting from a Catholic perspective. 

On family life and roles

We get brief portraits of the inner life of three families. 

First, the rather horrific upbringing Bertie had himself, which undoubtedly led to his stammer, complete with cruel nannies, painful medical procedures, and deliberately terrifying and very distant Dad (played by Gambon). 

Secondly, the rather formalised and forced, though certainly an improvement on his own upbringing, relationship with his own two daughters, Elizabeth (II) and Margaret. 

Thirdly, the truly happy, engaged, carefree and loving family life of Logue himself, which, the sub-text suggests, supports his easy self-confidence, committed caring and great dry sense of humour.

And in each of the latter two family portrayals, the wives are also quiet heroines: Elizabeth tells us that she rejected Bertie's proposals three times because she didn't want to be a royal, but she is depicted as taking her role seriously, stepping in when needed in her husband's struggles, and ultimately finding the solution in the form of Lionel Logue.  Similarly, Myrtle Logue is a wise counsellor and critical support to her husband's groundbreaking work even though he maintains his patient's confidentiality with her.

Sex, lies, adultery and Naziism

The other refreshing thing about this film is its treatment of Edward VIII. 

No whitewashing praise for giving it all up for love or other such cliches here.

Instead 'David' (as he was known in the family) is shown up as a weak, self-indulgent, thoroughly immoral (serial fornicator, conducting relationships with a series of married women, and then lying about it to his father) and irresponsible character being led on by a serial divorcee who was more than just a mere Nazi 'sympathizer'.  All dangerous attributes indeed in an environment where crowns were falling to revolution, and the danger of Naziism was becoming increasingly obvious.

Worse, Edward's weaknesses were well-known to his father, and the film suggests that there was always an expectation that Prince Albert would end up as King, hence the attempts to force him into deeply embarrassing public speaking engagements.

For Albert himself to aspire to the role (which he certainly doesn't) would have been treason, as he makes clear.  Indeed, who could possibly aspire to the royal life as portrayed here - a life of purgatory unleavened by any positives other than the possible satisfaction of a duty well-performed!  Now perhaps that is closer to reality than many past films, but hopefully a bit bleaker than the reality all the same!

There is some interesting though rather more ambivalent sub-voce commentary on the divine right of kings too. 

Interesting stuff. 

And a great film.


A Canberra Observer said...

Yes, went to see it.

Really very good.

Andrea said...

Fantastic film! I was moved to tears! This is definitely a movie I want to purchase when it comes out on DVD.

Kate said...

I read a review of a book on Logue that drew on his diaries etc yesterday, and it seems the film is shall we say a very free adaptation of reality! But then again, that makes the selection of themes all the more deliberate and good!