Bromance with a British accent
The rain in Spain
Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech is basically a fairy tale, in more ways than one.
There’s the similarities to the Pygmalion legend, and even more marked similarities to George Bernard Shaw’s play (I’ll stop short of the Lerner and Lowe musical). When you think about it, the stakes run higher in Hooper’s screenplay (which also started out as a stage play) -- Eliza Doolittle was a whole and complete (if a touch unsatisfied) woman of the lower classes whose speech fitted her social status perfectly. In the case of ‘Bertie’ (Colin Firth), as close friends and family called him, he’s in line to be king of Great Britain but his stammer stands as a huge, insurmountable obstacle on his path towards being an effective leader.
So Bertie visits a speech therapist, frustrated theater actor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush); like Shaw’s Henry Higgins, Logue pokes, prods, and all-around provokes Bertie to blossoming into an eloquent if slightly unsteady speaker. No, we do not have a “The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain” moment -- Logue achieves small breakthroughs a number of times, usually by means of psychological trickery -- and we definitely do not have a “I could have danced all night” moment; unlike Shaw, or Lerner and Lowe, or for that matter the original myth on which Shaw based his play, Lionel and Bertie develops something more like an unspoken bromance than any conventional attraction, much less full-fledged passion (that would have been an interesting if distracting direction to go).
But there’s another sense in which this film is like a fairy tale: it fudges liberally the facts, soft-pedals the depiction of several people, and in at least one case does a 180° turn on the position of a crucial character.
Edward VIII (Guy Pearce) was more than just a divorcee-smitten king with a troubling interest in Nazism; he was an active sympathizer who spent his honeymoon in the Third Reich, was apparently willing to rule as king under Nazi rule should the Allies lose the war, and was eventually farmed out to the Bahamas because it was thought he’d do the least harm there.
Likewise, Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall, a physically odd choice for the role) did not as shown on the big screen favor Edward’s abdication but in fact resisted it, being a close friend of the man. Churchill made speeches at the House of Commons (“almost certainly heavily intoxicated,” suggests columnist Christopher Hitchens, who cites Churchill biographer William Manchester) defending Edward, at the same time jeopardizing his hard-fought political cause of warning England about the growing danger of Hitler.
Overall, the “Politics of Appeasement” pursued by Neville Chamberlain with the support of the royal family has been severely simplified, with some details omitted, possibly to retain the audiences’ sympathy towards Bertie and his immediate family (Edward comes off less well, but we are probably being asked to look at him as the prodigal son who adds color and the whiff of scandal to an apparently stolid family).
Beyond the politics it’s difficult to fault the film; what worked for Shaw and Lerner & Lowe certainly works for Tom Hooper: he focuses on the emotional core of the picture, the teacher-pupil relationship between Lionel and Bertie (with some side melodrama from the self-obsessed Duke of Windsor).
Many of the film’s scenes, and indeed much of the key dialogue take place mainly between the two men, often in Lionel’s study. Yes, this does give away the script’s theatrical roots; at the same time Hooper manages to turn the image into the film’s motif: two men in a room, a few chairs, props, and little else, working out their differences and coming to some kind of mutual understanding. Hooper works variations on this image, at one point expanding the space into the vast vaulted reaches of Westminster Abbey, one of the chairs becoming the Coronation Throne; later we have Bertie standing inside a heavily tented studio (for the acoustics, presumably), delivering the eponymous speech to a microphone. Whatever the size of the space (study, studio, Abbey), whatever the props at hand (chair, throne, microphone), the basic elements stay the same: two men in a room, attempting communication.
In John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a newspaper reporter declares “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Hooper does that, but it would be smart not to totally forget the facts -- a movie isn’t a history text, but could serve as inspiration for further research, maybe a sequel (King’s Speech 2: Losing Bertie's Lisp).
Maybe this picture’s success could lead to another, less simplistic one, a focus on Great Britain’s appeasement policy and why they pursued it so persistently (basically, the Britons believed that if they entered into yet another worldwide war it would be the end of their empire -- and they were right). Sure, print the legend, but try not to forget that it’s just legend, after all.
First published in Businessworld, 5.12.11