Class Distinction in The King’s Speech

The King's SpeechI finally got around to watching The King’s Speech last night. It is a very good film. It looks great and the acting is flawless. It is that most unusual of films: a character-based narrative. The plot only matters in so much as it motivates the characters. And the two primary characters are really interesting. I wanted to know more about them. When the film ended, I wanted another hour. In an age when I think most films are an hour or more too long, The King’s Speech was a delightful change.

The film tells the story of stuttering Prince Albert (eventually King George VI) and his work with speech therapist Lionel Logue. According to everyone else, they form a friendship over this work. I don’t see it this way. They form a relationship. Friendships require some kind of equality. For example, people don’t have friendships with their pets. There is no doubt that Albert is fond of Logue, and apparently closer to him emotionally than he is to any of his friends. (Although Albert claims to not having any friends.)

The whole power dynamic is exactly what we see in The Madness of King George between king and Dr Willis. In that film, King George III tells Willis at the end not to look him in the eye because he is no longer the patient. Willis was necessary to George for a certain period of time—just like a coachman. But there is never any question that George is royalty and Willis is not, regardless of how useful he may be.

The exact same dynamic goes on in The King’s Speech. But it is so much more richly rendered than in The Madness of King George. This is primarily due to the fact that Albert was not insane and because of the kind of work he required. But over and over, Albert makes clear their distinction. This is especially apparent two-thirds through the film when the king learns that Logue has no formal training. Logue has never claimed to have had formal training, and in the film, he seems to be Albert’s last option—all the well-credentialed speech therapists having been tried. But Logue’s success with Albert doesn’t seem to matter. It is again: class and class alone.

All of this probably makes Albert seem like a horrible person, but he is not. He is quite sympathetic. I don’t blame a man for believing what he’s been told all his life: that he was born better than other men and they are rightly beneath him. What’s more Colin Firth plays him with such barely controlled anger and terror that it is impossible not to feel his pain. What’s more, within the cultural straight jacket of his upbringing, Albert seems to be a decent man. If you have to have a king, he is a better man for the job than most.

For me, however, there is one great man in this film and it is not the king. Logue is a fascinating character. He is an amateur actor who loves Shakespeare. There is a funny bit in the film where Albert’s wife tells Albert that he ought to check out Logue because, “His approach seems rather different.” This cuts directly to Logue auditioning for an amateur production of Richard III. It is rather bad, but very much what you would expect from a speech therapist who loves the words more than theater. He is the sort of man that many would ridicule, but he is blinded by his love of it. And as a result, he is a greater man than any of his detractors. Geoffrey Rush completely captures this nerd-aspect of the character without ever letting it slip into a type. I thought the performance was even more impressive than Firth’s.

The supporting cast was also quite good. Helena Bonham Carter as Albert’s wife was very good. Derek Jacobi is wonderfully pretentious as the Archbishop. Michael Gambon as George V does great delirium, but let’s face it: I’m just in love with his voice. But the standout performance was Guy Pearce as Edward VIII. No one is quite so good as Pearce is at doing subtle arrogance. It is just perfect for Edward. It would have been easy to sympathize with Edward. After all, he abdicates the throne so he can marry the woman he loves. But Pearce gives him that extra something that just makes you want to punch him.

Ultimately, I would have rather had a play with the two characters and maybe a small supporting cast. And as I think is clear, I’m far more interested in Logue than the king. But the filmmakers weren’t interested in making a play focused on Logue. Given what they were trying to do, I think it is a perfect film. It works on every level.

Afterword

Looking at the actual historical figures, the class differences are even greater. Again, I don’t doubt that the men had real affection for each other. But they were not friends. The royal family was and still is the clearest example of our ridiculously arbitrary social system.

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