“The King’s Speech” is the early favorite to win Best Picture honors at this year’s Academy Awards. The story of King George VI, and his relationship with a speech therapist, as he learned to control both a stammer and his crushing fears, is the inspiring story of a man who happened to become King of Great Britain.
But what Winston Churchill called “the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire” has made for many great motion pictures, which is why “The King’s Speech” functions roughly as a prequel to another recent movie about the British royal family - the story of George’s daughter Elizabeth, “The Queen.”
The climax of both films, strangely enough, comes when both sovereigns give speeches - though the speeches come under very different sets of circumstances.
George VI, still trying to overcome his stuttering and grow into his position, must give a rallying speech to the British Empire by radio on Sept. 3, 1939, the day his nation declared war on Germany. It is the second time in little over a generation that the world has plunged into war. George, or Bertie as he is known, stands before a microphone with his coach, Lionel Logue, giving the speech to free his people from what he called “the bondage of fear.”
The film brings us to this moment by showing us a man who lived in the shadows of his father and his older brother, his own fears and his lack of self-esteem. Though Logue can help him with the physical aspects of his defect, it is only when he confronts the man’s inner pain that the words begin to flow. It is only when he accepts himself that he is able to become the monarch he wishes to be.
For “The Queen,” Elizabeth must give a speech following the death of her ex-daughter-in-law, Princess Diana, in order to calm the emotions of the British public. The nation’s tabloid culture has turned its venom on her, largely in order to shield itself from accusations Diana was killed by a stalking paparazzi. The Queen, however, has committed the sin of not being properly mournful enough.
When Elizabeth speaks, she has no impediment, except perhaps her own stubborn insistence on tradition. As a woman who has spent her whole life embodying a symbolic idea of herself as her people, the moment is crushing. She experiences a temporary loss of identity, when she realizes that she has miscalculated the mood of the people. It is only by humbling herself, by calling attention to her position “as your Queen, and as a grandmother” in the speech, that she regains her position and something she did not have before. She is now human, a virtue which before now has not been valuable to herself or her position.
It is George V, her grandfather, in “The King’s Speech,” who warns Bertie of this, as the son sits in front of a microphone, unable to read the traditional Christmas greeting. The King tells the future king that the microphone, and therefore modern media, will transform them into human beings, and require more of them than simply being a lone figure on horseback, or standing on balconies to wave to crowds. When we hear this speech, we are reminded of Elizabeth’s dilemma, seventy years in the future.
On both of these film journeys, the two monarchs have guides - Logue for Bertie, and Tony Blair serves somewhat the same function for Elizabeth. But in the end, the action must come from the sovereign. Only the King can be king, only the Queen can be queen.
Which is why the royal family, and power in general, has always served as a subject for high drama. The idea of “divine right” - you are king because God chose you - can be understood by the noble and ignoble alike. The question of destiny has always been an essential mechanism of drama, because the human condition sometimes can be easily reduced to the question of “why me?” Why did this have to happen? What has brought me to this moment? One need not be a monarch to feel this, nor to feel the finger of God holding one in a very uncomfortable place, until the skin slides off your illusions and reveals them for what they are. Oedipus, blind and raging against the will of the gods, is only a slight step removed from Hamlet, dogged by a ghost toward a revenge he cannot comprehend, which is only a slight step away from Richard Nixon speaking to a silent painting of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on the walls of the White House, taking in an accusation only he can hear.
When the subject is a ruler, all the power in the world is sometimes no comfort at all when it serves to remind one of how truly powerless one is.
Or, as George VI said to his people, standing at the threshold of war once again, “we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to God.”
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