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Long Live the King: The Appeal of the King’s Speech…

The King’s Speech was available to rent this weekend, and will go on sale next weekend. Indeed, it seems like perfect timing to release the DVD, what with all the press buzz about the monarchy this past week. It seems you can’t turn a corner without bumping into a newspaper vendor who is stocked up on tabloid promising exclusive looks at various aspects of the ceremony, or turn on the television without being subjected to a five-hour marathon of How to Marry a Prince. I’m not making that one up either, it’s actually a show running on Living HD. Yep. And I live in Ireland, a country that spent a significant amount of time trying to distance ourselves from the monarchy… imagine how overwhelming it might be if I was based in Britain. Still, it seems royalty has a very special appeal, at least based on the box office success of The King’s Speech and the viewing figures from the ceremony… so why, when most of the globe struggled to be free of this particular monarchy, are they so fascinating?

Colin all film fans!

Okay, I’m going to be fairly unambiguous about this: I enjoyed the film. I think a large part of the success of The King’s Speech can be traced to the simple fact that it’s a well-made film which appeals to a broad demographic. I don’t think it’s the best film of the year so far, nor so I think that it was even my favourite of the ten Best Picture nominees, but I liked it – and, truth be told, it’s not a bad Best Picture winner. It won’t leave people scratching their heads like Shakespeare in Love did. And that’s not really as disappointed as it sounds – the Best Picture field was incredibly strong this year, one of the better years in memory.

Still, there has to be something more about the appeal of the film. After all, it didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. In fact, one of my favourite film-related articles of last year made the very wry observation that the movie is effectively a remake of The Karate Kid, wearing royal vestments – right down to themes and plot structure. There’s nothing new about it, it’s travelling the well-worn triumph-over-adversity path that we’ve seen countless times before. You could argue the historical context of the film, set against the rise of Nazi Germany, gave the film its strength, but there have been lots of similar stories. For instance, I’d argue Kenneth Branagh’s Warm Springs (the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt recovering from Polio and coming to terms with his own disability) tells a much more important triumph-over-adversity story concerning the Second World War.

A loveable Logue...

I think there’s definitely something exotic about the idea of constitutional monarchy, especially to nations which likely look on it as something “quaint.” Indeed, consider the persistence of the myth that “constitutional monarchy” is “the most stable form of government”, which is undoubtedly an over-simplification. It’s interesting to note that the movie did so well in “international” markets. The film understandably took $69m in the UK, as one could possible write that off as the nationalist pride in a Best Picture frontrunner, or perhaps suggest the movie has a rich cultural context in the country where it is set. However, the other two regions that contributed most to the film’s financial success were two large former colonies: the US ($138m) and Australia ($32m).

I think part of the appeal of the film is that it indulges a sense of nostalgia for a system of rule which was hugely unpopular at the height of its power (with America engaging in revolution to leave their sphere of influence, and Australia originally serving as a penal colony). Much like you might argue that the sun setting on the era of British imperialism has made James Bond something of a nostalgic pop culture sensation (when, if the Empire existed in some tangible form, he’d be the worst for of mass media jingoism), I think the sting has been removed from the British Royal Family by virtue of the fact that they really don’t do that much. At least not politically.

A Blairing enthusiasm for the monarchy?

Indeed, it’s been argued that the beauty of The King’s Speech is the way that it deftly manages to avoid politicising its main character, Prince Albert. The Guardian has suggested that it’s a retroactive attempt to colour the monarch in the shades which made Princess Diana so popular, while ignoring the rather unfortunate political realities of the situation:

The King’s Speech suggests that in today’s era the royals can best win our affections in the manner favoured by so many celebrities – by revealing their struggles against adversity. So we warm to “Bertie” when we learn of his cold, abusive childhood – beaten because he was lefthanded, starved by a malevolent nanny. Thus the film extends the Dianification of the monarchy back two generations, asking us to hail George VI not for his majesty, but for his vulnerability.

For all that, the emotional core of the film lies elsewhere, specifically with the second world war. If the king were only rehearsing for his coronation, we would hardly care. That he is preparing to address the nation on the outbreak of war is what gives the story its moral force. As such, The King’s Speech is confirmation that the last war has now become our nation’s defining narrative, almost its creation myth. What 1789 is to the French, what 1776 is to the Americans, 1940 is to the Brits – our finest hour when we stood alone against the Nazi menace. This is the period our children study in school; all history before, including that of empire, is increasingly hazy. When we nominate our greatest Briton, we choose Winston Churchill.

As it happens, the Windsors are not the ideal bearers of this chapter of our island story. As the film makes clear, Edward VIII was an admirer of Hitler. As the film does not make clear, the rest of the royal family leaned towards appeasement. Even the sainted Bertie sent a message to the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, in the spring of 1939, expressing his hope that Jews – then desperate to get out of Germany – would be barred from doing so. Halifax listened to his king, sending word to Berlin urging the Nazi government “to check the unauthorised emigration” of Jews. (Such is the political intensity of Oscar season, this fact is being used as ammunition against The King’s Speech by its rivals.)

Close but no cigar...

Indeed, one need only look at the movie’s treatment of Winston Churchill to get an idea of how apolitical the movie makes inter-War British politics. Churchill, of course, stands as the bulldog who defended Britain, “the island fortress” against the Nazi hordes beating at the gates. He championed the country through its darkest hour, with calm and collected leadership and strength of character. The popular image of Churchill is quite similar to the version Timothy Spall presents us with, quick-witted, worried about the Germans, but a pretty decent guy. In fact, I’m surprised we didn’t get a scene of Spall going, “Oh yes!” in the style of that dog which sells car insurance.

The real Churchill is a far more complex character, which is perhaps why the movie isn’t about his speech impediment. He opposed Indian Independence, believed in eugenics, and was a noted drunk. His military prowess has been argued to be somewhat weaker than his legend would suggest, with his strategy leading to the catastrophic loss at Gallipoli in the First World War (a failure which led to his demotion). After the war, his term as Prime Minister is hotly contested, with many observing that Churchill wasn’t a political leader suited for peace time.

It speaks to the masses...

Indeed, Churchill actually sided with Edward during the abdication crisis (with some suggesting he even wrote at least parts of Edward’s abdication speech). However, Churchill is such an iconic British institution that the film couldn’t possibly pit him against our lead, so he becomes a subtle mover and shaker on Bertie’s side. Never mind the fact that Albert actively disliked Churchill so much that he barely considered him to replace Chamberlain on that controversial Prime Minister’s resignation (by the by, Baldwin did not resign because of the German storm brewing in Europe – he was just old and tired; the film invents a sense of constant Nazi menace amongst British aristocracy which simply didn’t exist at the time).

Still, this doesn’t necessarily add up with the popular version of events, so it gets airbrushed so the story can fit a more conventional mould, with all the “greatest hits” of inter-War Britain lined up like some sort of super-star pop band. I think this sort of nostalgic style lends itself to the appeal. In fairness, the tinkering with the truth and the facts isn’t so large that it becomes too controversial, and the story fits the traditional mold of a triumph over adversity so very well.

A lot of people are singing the movie's praises...

But perhaps that’s too complicated an explanation. After all, what does the movie have in common with the Royal Wedding? Aside from an overlap in cast members, of course? There’s that ultimate fantasy, the one which places royalty and commoner on common footing. We are constantly reminded that Kate Middleton is “a commoner”, in the least disparaging sense of the word. However, if her life to date counts as a commoner (with a £1m flat with no mortgage and £250,000 in school fees), than I really feel like we need to redefine that word. Still, it’s a myth that the public seem to like and embrace, in much the same way that Lady Diana Spencer could become “the People’s Princess” with a common touch.

We like the fantasy that ordinary people might somehow come into contact with these people who rule by “divine right” (and, as it should probably be qualified in this day and age, the patience of their subjects) and make them richer than they might otherwise be. Cynics might suggest that this fantasy reflects a desire by people to become “great by association”, reinforcing the idea that any of us might one day fall in love with a royal, or achieve our own greatness by assisting (a variant on the old fable of Androcles and the Lion) – much as Lionel Logue did (a man so very common he wasn’t even a qualified doctor, and yet got to sit with the family at the coronation). the movie does call Lionel out on attempting to live vicariously through Albert, implying that it isn’t really what this about.

What's not to love?

In fact, I am not so cynical to believe the fantasy is so shallow and selfish. I’d argue that it’s a much more romantic belief that the Royal Wedding and The King’s Speech offer, albeit a more fanciful one. It’s the idea that we, the common people, have something that royalty cannot – and that they are more affected and shaped by us than we are by them. Prince William finds true happiness, and Prince Albert finds somebody who genuinely likes him. The King’s Speech has a key scene were Albert paints a model airplane Logue got for his son, clearly enjoying the chance to be purely normal. Indeed, by the end of the film, Albert refers to “Lionel” by his first name, as a mark of respect and genuine friendship – something that the King rarely has.

I’m not going to suggest the idea isn’t fanciful (it is a fantasy, after all), but I think that’s something that both of these multimedia events play into. Maybe it’s not about royalty, but about how ordinary people can sometimes prove so incredibly influential to those in power – those who live lives so far removed from our own. Perhaps you could tell a similar story about the President of the United States, except that most Presidents begin their lives as relatively normal people. The appeal of royalty for a story like that is the fact that they never had a normal life – the contrast is that much greater.

Royal pains, eh?

Or perhaps these are just empty, mindless ramblings, provoked by a little too much reality television. I don’t know.

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2 Responses

  1. Great post like always. The appeal of The King’s Speech is a little perplexing. It’s basically impossible to actively dislike (unless out of spite).

    Other than British Royalty festishization and nostalgia, I think the consistently charming tone and the endearing characters is a great strength. The film is like a greatest hits of British traits that appeal to Western audiences.

    That being said, I do agree with your point about Churchill’s caricatural portrayal. Despite being an overall more “cartoony” film, I thought Rod Taylor’s performance in Inglourious Basterds was a more subtle and interesting performance, despite having fewer lines/screen time.

    • Thanks Justin. You’re right about the endearing characters – I really don’t want to ignore the fact that the film is also just really well written and really well made, as tends to get lost in discussions like this. I don’t want it to sound like I’m picking it apart from the cynical perspective of someone who didn’t really enjoy it (because I did).

      And I love Taylor’s Churchill, much like Brendan Gleeson’s, because he doesn’t really look too much like Churchill, except for maybe body mass and baldness. It’s like Hopkins as Nixon – it’s about a very subtle capturing of the spirit. From what I know of his history, Churchill wasn’t adorably cute, he was witty, often drunk and just a tad antagonistic to anyone (hence the challenge in Inglourious Basterds about how German Propaganda fits into the tapestry of cinematic history, which is something Spall’s version would never do – he’d nod and gnarl his face in support).

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