My friend Sarah and I saw The King’s Speech last night. Some of the reviews had made it out to be mere Oscar bait, but I wanted to see it anyway. It’s the kind of film I tend to like anyway–a small look into the private lives of people of influence. When I lived in London, we did the typical school tour of the War Rooms. What struck me the most–besides the story of Winston Churchill standing on the roof, watching the Blitz–was the fact that George VI refused to leave Buckingham Palace once the Germans began bombing London. Several bombs nearly hit the Palace, but he refused to leave, knowing that his presence gave the people of London hope. They would not be abandoned by their King, and thus, they would not be abandoned by their government.
The movie hangs on Colin Firth’s performance. He not only gets the stammer perfect, but also the oddly nasal upper class British accent. Most importantly, he conveys the depth of George VI/Bertie’s fears–both the bullying of a royal childhood and his desire to rule and his terror of it. The stammer makes Bertie ungainly, awkward, but it also gives him the space to be the man he wants to be in some ways too. Royal duties aside, his family gives him great contentment, a fact that Firth conveys beautifully with his eyes. Every time he looks at his little girls, you feel both the King’s pride and joy in his family but also a deep sadness that he can’t speak to them the way he’d like.
The movie brought me back to a discussion my friend Walter and I had about why Americans and the American media are so interested in the upcoming royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton. After all, they’re not our monarchy. From a political perspective, I’m decidedly pro-democracy. I think a monarchial system is in effective in the modern world, and truly, if I were a British taxpayer, I’d be less than enthusiastic that my money goes in part to support the royal family, even if a large part of that money goes into preserving historical estates, etc. that I think need to be preserved. Yet, from a cultural standpoint, I can’t help but be a little fascinated. It’s the same as any celebrity wedding on one hand. It’s really no different than the coverage of Chelsea Clinton’s wedding. Yet, there is more too it than mere celebrity. I think it stems from the symbolism of the monarchy. Great kings and queens, like George VI, manage to turn the inherited office into a symbol of national unity. I still feel the symbolic power of that office. Fixing his stammer allowed Bertie Windsor to become George VI. There’s cultural power in that transformation that resonates.