I suppose I’m just about the last person to see this film, which won Oscars in all major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay). This is odd considering my fascination with the British Monarchy (see my essay “In Defense of Royalty”). However, film audiences today annoy me so much I usually wait for things to come out on DVD. So it was with great anticipation that I awaited the arrival of The King’s Speech from Netflix. And I do love a good film about the British Royal Family. I thoroughly enjoyed 2006’s The Queen with Helen Mirren.
The plot, as just about everybody knows by now, concerns the efforts of Prince Albert, Duke of York (later King George VI) to overcome his pronounced stammer. In the 1930s, he meets a speech therapist (a man, in fact, with no formal training) with whom he works – reluctantly at first, owing to the man’s unorthodox methods and insistence on calling him “Bertie.” Matters become more pressing when George V dies and Albert’s brother Edward ascends the throne. Edward is hell-bent marrying an American divorcée, Mrs. Wallis Simpson. Eleven months later, he winds up abdicating and Albert succeeds him. After much work, and friction, Logue manages to make a great deal of progress with the King. The real test comes just after Britain declares war on Germany, and Britain’s new monarch must address the nation. In the film’s climax, Logue stands by the King, who, after a halting start, delivers an almost flawless radio address.
It sounds like a recipe for a wonderful film . . . but about ten or fifteen minutes into it I noticed I was becoming more and more uncomfortable. Something seemed a bit . . . off. It was in the dialogue. Something simply did not ring true. And a thought occurred to me: Could this film have been written by an American? I initially dismissed the idea. The cast is British (mostly), the locations are authentic, the director is British, and the subject ever-so-British. Surely the Brits would not allow an American to script their dialogue for them.
But it turns out I was right. The screenwriter is one David Seidler, a playwright and film and television writer (notable for having scripted the 1999 TV movie Come On, Get Happy: The Partridge Family Story). In press for The King’s Speech Seidler is always described as “British born.” In fact his family emigrated to the United States when he was three years old, and he was raised on (choke, gasp) Long Island. Bloody hell!
The King’s Speech, in truth, is pretentious middle-brow junk – almost as bad as 1998’s Elizabeth, a film about Queen Elizabeth I (and my stock example of pretentious middle-brow junk). As is typical of Americans, Mr. Seidler sees the English as pompous, uptight windbags, undersexed and out of touch with their “feelings.” And Mr. Seidler seems to have only the most superficial knowledge of British Royalty, and (as we shall see) British history.
When the Duke of York (played by Colin Firth) first meets Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), Logue insists that they address each other by their first names. Logue’s grandson Robert flatly denied it ever happened. Instead, what we have here is something born of the egalitarian American mind, which always wants to tear down anything that has height (except skyscrapers). Poor, poor Bertie: stammering helplessly in his frosty world of manners and protocol and deep, dark repression. If only he could let his hair down, and allow himself to be treated like a regular bloke. Then he’d be cured!
Poor Bertie is also full of prejudices. Tsk tsk. Several times he makes snide references to the fact that dear Mr. Logue is Australian. Needless to say, in order to be fully cured our Bertie will have to overcome his prejudices as well . . . (Jesus, this movie is just by-the-numbers!)
As if all this weren’t bad enough, Seidler treats us to scenes of the future monarch chortling, waving his arms, and hopping about like a nancy boy in a high school drama warmup. It’s all part of the therapy, you see. But you haven’t heard the worst of it, gentle reader. Logue decides that “Bertie” needs to sample the liberating effects of cursing. And so we are subjected to a protracted scene in which the father of the present Queen shouts “Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Bollocks! Bollocks! Bollocks! Bollocks!” (Logue’s grandson disputes this as highly unlikely.) The Sun, a British paper with about as much credibility as The New York Post, reported that the Queen watched this shitty, fucked-up, bollocky film at Sandringham House around Christmas 2010 and found it “moving” and “enjoyable.” I sincerely doubt this, unless what she saw was a heavily-edited version.
Helena Bonham Carter plays the Duchess of York (later Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother). I’ve always liked Bonham Carter quite a lot, primarily because of her terrific performance in Fight Club (one of my favorite films). But here she is miscast. Though she gives it a good effort, she simply does not have the dignity to portray the ultra-dignified Elizabeth. In one scene, Logue’s wife comes home early and finds Queen Elizabeth seated at the dining room table. The Queen calmly says to her “It’s ‘Your Majesty’ the first time, after that it’s ‘ma’am’ as in ‘ham,’ not ‘ma’am’ as in palm.” Funny, eh? Trouble is the line is lifted from The Queen, where an equerry says to Tony Blair “It’s ‘ma’am’ as in ‘ham,’ not ‘ma’am’ as in ‘farm.’” Like a shifty college freshman, Seidler changes one word to disguise his plagiarism. As is the case with most Americans, Mr. Seidler’s knowledge of the world has been primarily mediated by film and television.
I’ve always found Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor, rather fascinating, and Mrs. Simpson even more so (not because I think they were exemplary people – far from it). However, the portrayal of them in this film practically turns them into Warner Bros. cartoon characters. It is true that Edward was besotted with Wallis, but he was not the idiot he is portrayed as here. Nor is there any reason to believe that he was cruel to his brother. Up until the abdication, in fact, the two men were quite close. Wallis is on screen for about half a minute, played by an even uglier woman than the real thing. But the half minute shows Wallis and Edward nuzzling in front of their guests at Balmoral Castle – something that would never have taken place. Mr. Seidler also peppers his dialogue with rumors about Wallis Simpson that have long since been dismissed by competent historians (e.g. she was trained in exotic sexual techniques in a brothel in Shanghai).
However, this just scratches the surface of the film’s historical revisionism. Churchill (presented here as a cigar-chomping cartoon facsimile) is depicted as critical of Edward and looking forward to his departure. In fact, the real Churchill was Edward’s staunchest supporter. (This has been pointed out in an editorial by Christopher Hitchens, taking The King’s Speech to task for its historical inaccuracies.) Churchill stood by Edward right up until the abdication, showing up in the House of Commons drunk and making rambling speeches in support of a man who was manifestly unworthy of being King.
And then there’s Hitler. You knew Hitler was coming, didn’t you? In today’s Hollywood, all roads eventually lead to him. It is a notorious fact that many of the Royal Family, including Edward and very probably George VI, were sympathetic to the Nazis. As Hitchens points out, when Chamberlain returned from Munich (after handing over to Hitler a large portion of Czechoslovakia) he was immediately whisked to Buckingham Palace and led out onto the balcony before throngs of cheering Britons. This was a gross violation of custom, whereby the actions of Prime Ministers receive Royal assent only after they have been submitted to Parliament. George VI and his family (who are, of course, German) were quite anxious to avoid a war with Hitler.
In this film, however, we see George VI and family watching a newsreel of Hitler speaking. As is the custom in American films (today and at the time), we are treated to a few seconds of Hitler “ranting,” without any subtitles explaining what he is saying. Little Elizabeth (later Elizabeth II) asks, “What’s he saying, Daddy?” The King says he does not know, but seems awfully disturbed by Mr. Hitler. (In actual fact, he probably spoke German quite well, as did his brother Edward.) But, of course, we don’t need to know what Hitler is saying. He is just obviously crazy!
Mr. Seidler quite deliberately leaves us with the idea that it’s a damned good thing that that crypto-Nazi Edward left the throne, so that the good anti-Nazi Albert could guide his nation to victory over Hitler. And this makes the whole issue of stammering all the more important, doesn’t it? God, what suspense! Suppose Logue can’t cure the King. Will Britain succumb to the brownshirt hordes? If the King can’t get over that stammer, all of Europe might well be blanketed in gas chambers.
Oh, and all of the above is accompanied by Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, his clarinet concerto, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Brahms’s German Requiem, etc. In short, the “top 40” of the middlebrow.
What a curious mess this film is, and what a sign of the times it is that so many could think this so good. Let’s take stock. It’s egalitarian, anti-WASP, anti-Establishment, anti-xenophobia. It’s scatological (“Shit! Shit! Shit!”). It steals shamelessly from other films. And it all comes down to saving the world from Hitler. What could explain such a strange combination of elements?
Incidentally, did I mention that Mr. Seidler is not an Anglican?