Thursday, May 5, 2011

History stutters, destiny triumphs

To what shall I compare thee, The King’s Speech? Art thou a moving testimonial to the resilience of the human will, a gripping historical narrative, a story of a wife’s devotion to her husband – or a highbrow version of a movie genre best known as the Disease of the Week?

There’s probably been enough discussion on the web regarding the historical inaccuracies of The King’s Speech – everything from the timeline of events to the nature of the relationship within the royal family to the true story of Churchill’s involvement in the abdication crisis. We needn’t review them here; links exist if you want to peruse them (Here, here and here for starters).

No, the point of this is not that the movie wasn’t 100% gospel, although there’s a lot to be said for historical accuracy, and much to be inferred from movies that play fast and loose with it. The point is that all lying, or fudging of the truth, is an attempt at manipulation. Storytelling itself, even when the story is completely and absolutely true, is manipulation as well, in that the purpose of the storyteller is to elicit a certain response from the audience. The reason we don’t think about this more often is that the best storytelling is done subtly, with a sure and confident hand, and if the story moves at a rapid enough pace we don’t even realize we’ve been had until much later, if ever. The best storytellers can have you eating out of their hand when you didn’t know you were even hungry.

What this leads to is a moment in Westminster Abbey during the preparations for the king’s coronation when the thought occurred to me: I am being manipulated. And as soon as I realized that, the enjoyment of the movie vanished. It was a moment that was telegraphed, for anyone to see if they had been looking for it. It was the precise point in time when the king confronts the doctor with the revelation that he has found out the truth, that the doctor is not and never was a doctor, and that his entire reputation has been built on a series of falsehoods and fabrications. It is The Crisis Moment, the pivotal moment when a conflict is introduced that threatens to tear apart the fabric of what up to that point had promised to be a Feel-Good Story. It’s the football star who’s ruled ineligible on the eve of the Big Game, the woman who walks out on her boyfriend just before the wedding due to a tragic misunderstanding – most movies have one, and usually one look at your watch will reassure you that everything will be cleared up in the end, because it’s not time for the movie to be over yet.

So this was The Crisis Moment of The King’s Speech, and it even had a Bad Guy to make the Crisis more appealing – the Vicar, who clearly resented the doctor’s involvement in the whole process, primarily because the Vicar hadn’t been responsible for introducing him to the king. We know that the Vicar will eventually lose this battle, for after all the moment of the King’s Speech hasn’t come yet and the doctor still has plenty of work to do. Sure enough, the doctor is able to explain himself, the king succeeds with his small speaking role in the ceremony, and we can get on to the major work of the movie – preparing for the King’s Speech.

As for the Speech itself – well, vis the title, this is what the whole movie works up to. George was, in a sense, born for this cinematic moment. Will he pull it off? Is the Pope Catholic? You might have figured the filmmakers weren’t about to make a movie about a king who absolutely blew it on a live microphone in a moment of grave crisis for his people. But one of the challenges to portraying historical events in a movie (or book, for that matter) is the eternal question of how to keep the suspense alive. One of the great compliments anyone can give such a story is the comment Judie had following the movie Apollo 13, when she said “I knew how it was going to end, and I still found myself wondering if they were going to make it.” Now that’s suspense – and I didn’t get that from The King’s Speech. Not for one minute.

Having passed through The Crisis Moment, we now arrive at the Climax – the speech itself – and this director isn’t about to let you forget it. As the king steps to the microphone, the fortunes of the entire Empire riding on his tied tongue, the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony starts up. Let me say here that my admiration for this piece of music is second to no one’s. If you only heard one of Beethoven’s compositions in your life, this is the one that would convince you he was a genius. It is atmospheric beyond imagination, running the gamut between sorrow and triumph. But its use as backdrop to the speech was beyond manipulation. It was as if the director didn’t trust the actual words of George’s speechwriter, which were stirring enough, to make the point. But then, in an era where we even have background music in public restrooms, I suppose a speech without a soundtrack is unimaginable. Sure enough, the king pulls it off (and, it must be said, the actor does a remarkable job of mimicking the real-life speech), and as sure as if Clark Kent just stepped out of a phonebooth, he leaves the broadcasting booth transformed: a new, and changed, man.

I don’t want to make it sound as if there was nothing good about this movie – the look of it was fantastic. The historical detail (other than in the script) was impressive, especially the reproduction of old Wembley Stadium at the movie’s outset. Geoffrey Rush was, as usual, solid; for my money it should have been him, and not Colin Firth, in the Best Actor category. Helena Bonham Carter, as Queen Elizabeth (aka the Queen Mum to you and me) was passable (if mannered; she never let you forget for a moment that she was acting), with just enough of a hint of the shrew about her to suggest that she was a woman most men would not have wanted for a mother-in-law. Maybe it was something about the eyes. On the other hand, if that was not the effect she was trying for, then the performance was no credit to her.

Firth won an Oscar for Best Actor, but then so have Richard Dreyfuss and Roberto Benigni, so that’s no point in his favor. I was underwhelmed by this performance – with the exception of an early scene with daughters Elizabeth and Margaret, his George struck me as a cold, and not particularly likeable, fish, part snob and part dolt. One of the key essentials to Crisis Moment movies is that you have a rooting interest in the hero, and I just couldn’t do that with Firth. The only reason I wanted him to get over the stutter is because of Rush – otherwise, I couldn’t give a damn. If he hadn’t been part of the royal family, I’m sure he would have fit right in alongside Bertie Wooster at the Drones Club. The rest of the royal family, particularly George and Edward, were unlikeable, as the filmmakers intended them to be. Whether or not they were portrayed accurately is a matter of taste, I suppose. And this whole review has, in one way or another, reflected back on the director, which means we’ve said enough about him.

All in all, The King’s Speech was, for me, a movie that left a sour taste in the mouth, a movie that diminishes in statue the farther one gets from it, although apparently this opinion puts me in a very small minority. Oh well. It’s a movie that won awards and sold tickets, and since that’s what it was bred for, you’d have to consider it a success by any measure, regardless of what you might think of it.

Finally, I have to admit, and I take no pride in it, that while I consider myself a fairly learned individual, I had no idea George had made such an important speech to the British people. Like many of you, I suspect, the only wartime speeches with which I was familiar were the ones that came from Churchill. And since I was able to find recordings of the speech on YouTube, recordings that were posted long before this movie came out, I’m forced to concede that this was indeed an important speech. I also can’t really say that I was aware of George’s stutter, although upon further reflection I do recall my mother (who was decidedly not an Anglophile) once remarking that she’d always thought George was a little bit, shall we say, slow in the thinker, and I suppose his speech impediment caused a lot of people to think that way.*

*See I, Claudius, who was, of course, played by Derek Jacobi – who also played the Vicar in this movie.

So, to the extent that this movie introduced me to a piece of history that I wasn’t familiar with, I suppose it did some good. At least it encouraged me to read more about it, where I was able to find out what the true story really was.

But I left the theater feeling as if I’d been played, and I don’t like to feel that way.


The opening minutes of Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny present, in some remarkable color footage of Churchill’s funeral, the image of a woman weeping as the funeral cortege passes by. Even though Churchill was 90 and had been in poor health for some time, his death, as narrator Ben Kingsley comments, still came as a shock to a people that revered Churchill as a link to Britain’s Finest Hour. And I wondered, as I saw the woman gently wiping away her tears, and later watched the scenes of teeming crowds pass by Churchill’s bier, whether or not there had been the same honest emotion at the time of George’s death. Admiration, yes. An affection for the monarchy, certainly. But grief? Not having been there, I can’t say for sure.

But I can say that I came away from this documentary with even more respect for Churchill than I’d had previously, which was already considerable. While George found himself forced into a role that he didn’t want (and did it well; the decision of George and Elizabeth to remain in London rather than flee to Canada for their own protection provided immense moral encouragement to the people), Churchill was forced into a role that he himself wound up creating – a kind of latter-day Lord Protector of the Realm. The movie focuses on the years 1940-41, beginning after a brief prologue with Churchill’s ascent to Prime Minister, and concluding with his Christmastime trip to the United States following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For most of that time Britain was forced to stand alone against what appeared to be an unstoppable Nazi powerhouse, and Churchill had been one of the first to sense the threat Hitler posed, going back as when he was merely Chancellor in the Hindenberg administration. With the fall of France, it was left to Churchill to cajole and convince America of the need to enter the war on the side of the Allies.

There’s something stirring about watching Churchill defiantly challenging the Germans, while encouraging the British people to rediscover the strong stuff of which they were made. Since we’re bound to do it, we’re also forced to contrast the stammering George with the smooth Churchill, especially in the later’s speech to a joint session of Congress in which he remarks, to a roar of laughter and cheers, that had his father been American and his mother British instead of the other way around, he might have come to speak before Congress more honestly. (President Churchill, anyone?)

Naturally, any documentary about Churchill is going to have Churchill as the focal point. As such, we get less about FDR’s initiative in convincing the American public, as well as Congress, to take sides in the war. As well, while the king isn’t ignored, it’s apparent the filmmakers consider Churchill the true hero of the war, particularly in an instance when Churchill and George, while dining together, are interrupted by a German air raid. George was content to head to the safety of the shelter, but Churchill insisted on going to the roof to watch the action first hand. (No record as to whether or not George joined him.) And since the movie was produced by the Wiesenthal Foundation, there are several examples given of Churchill’s fairness to Jews and defense of the right to a Jewish homeland, which might have otherwise seemed out of the narrative stream.* And the soundtrack, which is filled with lovely and stirring music, nonetheless suffers from the occasional bombastic orchestral arrangement that seems just a little wrong for the moment.

* Particularly in pointing out Churchill’s concern that the Atlantic Treaty, which encouraged self-determination in government, could result in Arabs blocking the creation of a Jewish state following the war. While this was undoubtedly one of Churchill’s concerns, I think it likely that he was more concerned about the effects the Treaty would have on Britain’s colonial holdings, especially India.

These minor quibbles aside (and even the word quibble might be strong), this movie, in a little under two hours, reminds us all of the power of heroic virtue, and the influence that can have not only on individuals, but on an entire nation. And while there are different paths to, and different kinds of, heroism, there will always be a need for heroes, and it’s good to have that demonstrated from time to time.

Walking With Destiny is an antidote, a cleansing of the pallet from the bad taste left by The King’s Speech – one which I, at least, needed.
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