February 17, 2011

On Civic Courage, Pushing, and The King's Speech

The German crowd positively thronged. In front of one door, the circus of lights and cameras suggested the peculiar lack of action that is Hollywood glam on the red carpet. The crowd here did not have tickets, but thirsted after a view of celebrity in the flesh. In front of the other door, a more sober crowd hunched its shoulders against the cold, gritted its teeth, and – after a Teutonic fashion – bayed for bread. Its nourishment of choice took the form of a good seat in the Friedrichstadtpalast so as to be better able to see the film in question. It was an avoidable mob. If only the organisers of the Berlinale (hailed as the people’s film festival) had bothered to assign seating, all the unpleasantness could have been avoided. As it was, the doors opened and the crowd charged. Old ladies stumbled in the stampede, and were trampled upon by other old ladies who had greater reserves of strength. It was as if Ryan Air had bought one of those new, super-large airbuses and had organised a free-for-all.

The film the crowd maddened to see was, funnily enough, about finding the courage to stand up for civilisation. Apparently, that’s the kind of thing people will risk their necks (or the necks of others) to see. Once seated, of course, the mob transformed into an entirely different animal: sober, respectful, and splendidly quiet. I’m no closer to understanding any of this than I ever was, but one cannot review a film, it seems to me, without reviewing the experience of seeing the film, of which all this is part and parcel.

Mrs. VB was sagacious enough to acquire for us two tickets to the gala opening of The King’s Speech, which was dutifully attended by Mr. Firth, Ms. Bonham-Carter, and Mr. Hooper. With the exception of Timothy Spall’s overly caricatured figure of Winston Churchill I thought the film absolutely splendid. There was some playing fast and loose with history, but such are films. In essence, the characters were well demarcated according to character, and overall George VI (Firth) represented an excellent example of civic courage, ably assisted by a stark contrast to the feckless and dishonourable Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), who demonstrated the timeless truth that clothes do not make the man.

I'm no paparazzo, but I stooped to snap this one

Packaged with considerable humour, the film depicts the struggle of a man to overcome all-too-human fears in order that he may perform sovereign duties. Those duties, as it transpires, were slight: mere reading, in fact. He neither had to think up, nor write his speeches. The sentiments were not his own, or at least did not have to be. He did not need to believe what he said, and he did not need to act upon what he said. But he had to talk of defeating the principle of might over right, and to rouse the real courage of those who would defeat it; he had to be believed, for people follow what they perceive to be the example of their leaders. The King’s stammer, a product of fear, would not embolden a nation, but make it hesitate on the trigger. The stammer had to go; the depths of personal misery and a history of abuse had to be plumbed; a speaker to be believed in had to be fashioned.

Twice in the film, the man who would rather not have been king was described as ‘the bravest man I know’. On both occasions I thought the speaker could not have known many men. But then, it takes a special kind of bravery to lead when you would rather follow; to honour duty when it falls on you against your will; to represent steadfastness when what you feel is weakness. Here was a man whose position meant he could not fight (although he once fought); a man who could barely string together a sentence; and a man who feared the life that birth and happenstance had dealt him. And despite these things, here was a man who had to make others believe that they could fight, and fight for him, for he embodied them as a sovereign nation.

How pleasant to see a king made humble but not left humble, as is the wont of the modern media. We are left with an image of a hero, a leader, a true king. We are confronted with circumstances that we, as ordinary men, will never face; but we see this man facing them and we admire his spirit. He becomes an aspirational figure, and garners our respect, and more importantly, our allegiance.

The audience laughed. The audience spontaneously erupted in bursts of applause during the film. The audience embraced the film’s vision of civilisation and its defenders. And then the audience stood up and pushed its way out onto the street.


  1. I also just went to see this movie and agree completely: it was splendid. I would have cut Churchill out of it completely, but I suppose it was necessary to have at least one historical figure that people would recognize in there...

  2. A beautifully crafted synopsis and civil critique of history, society, acting, and human nature with the topic of a film review as the cover.
    Very nice. I have not seen the film yet but look forward to the future date when I can, in the civility and happiness that is my own home.

  3. There is never a better venue than a man's own castle.
    Thanks for the compliments.

  4. I have not seen the film yet, and I doubt I will, the more I read about it.

    Evidence indicates it is one of those happy-clappy feel-good tales beloved of modern consumers, in which the well-born are mocked, ridiculed, and brought low; one's parents are accused of being abusive and responsible for one's defects; and it is left to an irreverent uncouth outsider contemptuous of the 'stiff upper lip' mentality to sort things out and save the day.

    Haven't we seen these Hollywood cliches played out a million times before?

    I'm just surprised there isn't a wise old Morgan Freeman character in there somewhere.

    I have been told the screenwriter of this film was forced to wait until the Queen Mother passed on to submit it, in order to spare her feelings.

    If I do see it, it will be because of the costumes.

  5. The mockery is only from others who were 'well born'.

    There is no accusation, but a confession given in grief.

    The King is portrayed as having the strength of character to sort himself out and save everyone's day.

    There was a wise old Morgan Freeman character, only he was in the guise of Winston Churchill.

    Yes, the director said that the Queen Mother found the memories too painful and asked for it to be deferred. The Queen, however, said she was 'moved'.

    Go see it. It's well-written. The costumes are good too.

  6. My wife and I went to see this last week, and we both thoroughly enjoyed it.

    I must say I was quite impressed with the use of music within the film, particularly the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony as an undercurrent during the radio address at the end. I think it complemented the gravity of the speech wonderfully.

    Thankfully, there was much less drama in the audience at my showing. We just had to deal with the squeals of teenage girls who were waiting to watch the new Justin Bieber movie (yes, we could hear them during our viewing).


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