Friday, September 30, 2011

The King's Speech: Self-Censorship

Why was this movie made?
I hope my little mantra, "A history movie is never, ever, never, ever, EVER about history," is well known to you by now, so when you see a movie (which did smashingly well at the box office) being made today about something from the past, you know that it's not about the past, rather, it's about what is happening today and merely masked in the events of the past.
French theatrical poster for The King's Speech.
Tom Hooper's Oscar winning hit The King's Speech about King George VI's stammering problem is not about him, rather, it is about the English royal family today, and their own uncertainty about their power and leadership in their country and the world. The film places Bertie (Colin Firth) in an uncomfortable position between the great William Shakespeare (whom Lionel Logue [Geoffrey Rush] is always acting out when he has the chance) and German leader Adolf Hitler who says whatever it is he says rather well. Bertie is placed between his brother King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) and his father, King George V (Michael Gambon); Bertie is placed between the great orator Sir Winston Churchill who, as Prime Minister, holds the real power, and the people of England who are tempted to believe that he is a phony king after his brother's abdication. When strong opposites exist within a screenplay, it's a sign of great writing and character development (please see Gestures: the Significance of the Insignificant for more on The King's Speech). 
Bertie attempting to give a speech at the opening of the show; maybe, just maybe, Bertie is really a scapegoat for England today, and it's really England who is afraid to speak and take the lead when the lead needs to be taken...? Bertie is a scapegoat for England today the way The Elephant Man is a scapegoat for the poor. If Bertie's difficulty speaking signifies the larger issue of England stammering in its ability to lead at a time of international "economic warfare," what causes that problem?
There is a sad but important point made by The King's Speechno one is listening to what he is saying but how he says it, because they are waiting for him to fumble.  And perhaps this is the deep-seated anxiety of every member of the British Empire, the world is waiting for them to fumble the lead. "Stuttering" is a form of self-censorship, because it keeps you from saying what you want to say because of the consequences. It's not explored why Bertie stammers,but it is certainly because he doesn't feel he has been properly valued, he has not received sufficient unconditional love for him to have confidence in himself (remember his father, King George V saying, "I was afraid of my father and my sons will be afraid of me!").
Note that amazing wall behind Bertie:  imagine that motley wall is symbolic of Bertie's soul, from which he must step out of himself to speak into the microphone to hear his true voice, unafraid of what he will say and the consequences. We know this moment is important because in the upper, left-side of the picture is an airplane, a symbol of the fighting coming in World War II. Note the dramatic comparison to The Elephant Man: Bertie is royalty but the metaphor for his soul--the wall--is an utter mess; John Merrick is a "freak" commoner but the metaphor for his soul is the cathedral.
Yet it's the British Empire expressing insecurity about itself in this film, whether the world really values the great contributions and achievements made, the sacrifices and victories. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur said we are who we are when we are in conversation. The truthfulness of our in-most being comes out when we speak words, when we make statements, when we do not speak and we do not make statements. That Bertie cannot speak means that he cannot make himself known as he is; if Bertie is symbolic of the British Empire, then the British Empire is having an identity crisis because it's restrained from telling the world who and what it is.
A most intimate and fearful moment for Bertie: his brother, King Edward, announces his abdication and that "Bertie the Stutterer" is now King. In speaking, Edward says that he is not king, he has put a selfish desire (an unholy desire, at that) before his duty and before his country, before all his ancestors who sacrificed and suffered. When Bertie takes the coronation oath and says "Yes," he is saying what he is and Edward isn't: a patriot, leader and father to his country.
But the title of the film, The King's Speech, is the center of our focus: what kinds of speeches do the members of the royal family give today? "Thank you for coming out and supporting today's charitable polo match, I do hope you will enjoy yourself and give generously to the children benefiting from this event, a splendid punch has been provided by the Royal Air Force wives," etc., etc., etc. I read once, that young Prince Charles had wanted to work in a factory, but he wasn't allowed to. How do you think such an experience would have changed him and all of the British Empire today, had the government allowed him to do something? Prince Harry was serving the army on the front lines of combat in Afghanistan, until it was made public and he was pulled back. There is a dynamic in which the royal family is caught:
Lionel Logue symbolically represents several important aspects necessary to England's leadership in The King's Speech. One, he's from Australia, signifying the great vastness of the Empire and all its resources, in terms of people and their talents, and material resources. Secondly, his continual references and acting out of Shakespeare (the greatest writer in history) invokes the long and astonishing cultural history of Great Britain in all its richness. Thirdly, there is the British character of the people of the Empire, and their dignity and commitment to nobleness. These aspects of the "make-up" of the British Empire unconsciously works on the audience demonstrating why Great Britain should be a leader today.
I am an American, so it would be ridiculous of me to be a royalist, BUT I AM SAYING that the English government is committed to having a royal family, and commits a large portion of tax dollars to supporting them, so give them the chance and dignity to earn it! But me being an American brings up the American in the film, Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). Yes, this "hussy" is absolutely a symbol for America: just as she "learned certain skills in Shanghai," so America has allowed our debt to be bought by the Chinese and we have moved from "husband to husband," having affairs with anyone who would float us money; facts are facts and reality is reality, and The King's Speech, released in 2010, was even before the downgrading of our credit this year! American's "leaders" in Washington have led us right out of leadership in the world because of our debt and the endless squabbles in the nation's capital; only England is left to guide the world to safer grounds.
When that red light goes on, Bertie is on, literally. When Prince William becomes king in Great Britain, what will the government--and the people--allow him to do? Will they allow him to be king? Will they allow him to lead? Will they allow him to speak for them? Will they allow him to make Great Britain's cause his cause? Or will he be a puppet, a figurehead, a nobody, an effigy? This is the time for the government and the royal family to decide if the dark clouds of ancient history have passed from the sky once and for all.
In conclusion, Bertie's stuttering not only reveals the identity crisis within Great Britain about its role in the world today, but about Prince William as well: his father, Prince Charles, renounced his place in line for the throne over Camilla, much like King Edward did for Wallis Simpson. The royal family has become so languid and paralyzed by their forced inactivity they can never be expected to lead, unless the people and the government take a deep breath and make a leap of faith. I know there are things which I cannot write nor can I say, because of the invisible shackles of political correctness and the oppressive power of "the weak" who will rear their head and come crashing down upon me in all their mediocrity; and, I daresay, the situation is rather similar for the Empire, that it is those who cannot lead themselves who are determined to keep Great Britain from leading.