Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!

Reel Time
Dale Hill

            Who cares what the British royal family get up to?

            (British usage – collective noun takes plural verb – yikes...)

            Seems like almost nobody should care about the BRF, especially small-r republican Americans, but just let the Queen's grandson get engaged and the whole world goes delirious for all the juicy details on the run-up to the Royal Wedding. Sheesh, you'd think it was Fred Astaire and Sarah Churchill in 1950.  And whenever the Brits turn out one of their lovingly-crafted, reverent and witty Royal Movies (cf. The Queen, 2006) we Yanks flock to it like they were pouring single-malt Scotch for free. But there's a reason for that: these films are almost always really, really good.

            On the run-up to the Academy Awards, The King's Speech is comfortably ahead with twelve nominations, should anyone care what the Academy gets up to during its annual mutual back-slapping.

On the other hand, The King's Speech is a great movie, and deserves several of those awards.

            On the basic story-telling level it's about an amiable, if short-tempered, fellow who seeks professional help for a debilitating stutter. Unfortunately this fellow is the Duke of York (Colin Firth), second in line to the throne of George V (Michael Gambon), and younger brother to the future Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), who is inappropriately in love with a trashy American divorcée (Eve Best as Wallis Simpson – we actually hear about the Shanghai bordello rumor, and the car salesman Guy Trundle, but with no juicy details). It's the Duke's wife, Elizabeth (the future Queen Mum as we knew her, played genially by Helena Bonham-Carter) who looks up a new speech therapist, an unconventional (aren't they all?) Australian  named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).

            After the exposition finishes with all the parentheticals, the story really gets cracking, but on a low-key and personal scale: Logue undertakes to cure the Duke's stutter through all sorts of outrageous-seeming but actually quite sound therapeutic methods. It quickly turns into a quiet battle of quiet wits, as the Duke resists Logue's methods with wry self-deprecation, and Logue responds with an insouciance that is just short of lèse-majesté – ever since 1066 the English have put all their ugly bits into French. There are a few tirades of profanity, as Logue uses his patient's anger to provoke volubility. Many therapists use profanity for a trigger, but that's hardly reason to keep kids away from this movie, as I can guarantee that our middle-school kids know more dirty words than we can even recognize; and this movie is a history lesson that's actually exciting.

            The story culminates most satisfactorily with George acceding to the throne in spite of his misgivings:  “Every monarch in history has succeeded someone who was dead, or just about to be,” George says, with admirable cynicism. But when he delivers his first wartime radio address, with Logue coaching him from the other side of the microphone, he rises to the occasion. This is not a spoiler – it's history.

            The supporting cast, as expected, is just as persuasive, including Timothy Spall (Wormtail in Harry Potter) as Winston Churchill; Anthony Andrews (Brideshead Revisited) as Prime Minister Baldwin; and Derek Jacobi, who played the world's most famous stutterer in I CLAVDIVS, as the archbishop of Canterbury, who, apparently, still wore knee-breeches in 1936. What fun!

            Part of this movie's attraction is that it re-creates a time that's within living memory: lots of folks can remember the era of the war, and quite a few probably heard these radio broadcasts.  Heck, I've met people, though not recently, who remembered Queen Victoria. But the movie wouldn't work if it were just played as a jingo history pageant – as with The Queen it's the surprising humanity and vulnerability of the characters that make this movie entertaining and touching. For subtlety, just watch Helena Bonham-Carter's body language as she tries to get out of shaking hands; and if you can watch the duke telling the princesses Margaret and Elizabeth a bedtime story about a penguin, and not say awww, then we have nothing in common. But there's a deep pensive element too, just as there is in Shakespeare's Henry V:

            Upon the king! Let us our lives, our souls,

            Our debts, our careful wives,

            Our children and our sins lay on the king!

            We must bear all...What infinite heat's-ease

            Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!

That's the element that we have to remember, the symbol that led the British Empire (what there was left of it) to stand up to the Luftwaffe, and prevail. Agreed, the Royal Family is a bloody great anachronism, and it costs the country a reeking great fortune, but England wouldn't be the same without it.