Giving voice to world war

January 12, 2011

King George VI finds his voice in a new film. But who will speak for the soldiers?

THE KING'S Speech uses every element of cinematography to bring emotional weight and narrative suspense to the story it tells: King George VI's battle to overcome a debilitating speech impediment.

Visually, the film transports you to 1930s England, encompassing the lavish interiors of the royal seats and the somber depression-era landscape beyond. The impeccable cast is topped by virtuoso performances by Colin Firth as the king and Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, an Australian aspiring actor who became the king's personal speech therapist.

As Prince Albert (who became King George VI after the abdication of King Edward VIII, his brother David--the royals have multiple names, confusingly), Firth conveys both superficial short-tempered arrogance and deep-seated vulnerability, capturing not only the acute frustration, but also the deep trauma behind the stammer. Rush's Logue exudes compassion and empathy, seeing beyond the persona to the damaged individual.

Albert's wife--Helena Bonham Carter playing to perfection the sheltered and clueless aristocrat-with-a-heart--speculates that Logue may be a "Bolshie," and at first, it seems that she may have a point.

Brushing off the casual chauvinism directed toward him as a "colonial," Logue disregards the trappings of rank and convention, and insists on equality in his treatment room. He refers to the prince as "Bertie" and induces him to undergo exercises variously hilarious (shouting expletives, singing sentences to popular tunes) and touching (divulging an emotionally deprived childhood while working on a model airplane belonging to one of Logue's sons).

The royal establishment is out of touch with the people and its own humanity: King George V (Michael Gambon) is the bullying patriarch of a family so alienated from natural emotion that his wife (Claire Bloom) is horrified when her son cries at his father's deathbed. The child Albert was bullied by his nanny and his elder brother, and grew up under the disdainful eye of an overbearing father. No wonder the adult royals are emotionally stunted.

A loving parent to his own sons, Logue becomes a democratic surrogate father, patiently breaking down the constricting veneer that traps the man and produces the stammer.

Review: Movies

The King's Speech, directed by Tom Hopper, starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Michael Gambon and Claire Bloom.

But the film's republicanism is thin. Logue has faith that Bertie is potentially a "great king," who can be the voice of the "common man." Unlike his selfish and hedonistic brother, Bertie is committed to his royal duty, which he calls "indentured servitude."

THE LOOMING pivotal event providing the film's narrative tension and emotional climax is the punning "speech" of the title: the new king must declare, on radio, that the country is at war.

Timothy Spall is a sympathetic Winston Churchill, who in one brief scene shares a heartwarming story about his own public speaking trials.

Alexandre Desplat's stirring score, interweaving Beethoven and Mozart with expressive original themes, and the captivating performances--if anyone can make a king sympathetic, it's Colin Firth--continue to work magic, but the film loses dramatic tension as it plummets to one-dimensional myth-making.

As the king delivers his speech, coached by Logue in private (the accompanying photograph of the king speaking at his desk was a fabrication), grave but determined ordinary British people listen to radios in pubs and living rooms. These shots are juxtaposed with images of Nazi troops and Hitler addressing saluting masses.

The establishment is united behind the noble cause of defeating fascism, and the monarch finds his voice in time to show--as a Guardian review puts it, apparently without irony--that "he is in touch with grimy 1930s Britain."

We see radio stations broadcasting his words across the world--India, Jamaica, Kenya--and cheer with the subjects of empire that the good king will unite them in the warm blanket of patriotism and meet the coming challenges of the good war. Just in case we missed the point, Logue now switches from "Bertie" to "your majesty."

While sufficiently irreverent to establish some credibility, the film taps in to the extensive reservoir of pro-Second World War propaganda to conjure a "crowd-pleaser"--also known as an "establishment-pleaser." Unlike another successful historical drama, Gosford Park, The King's Speech does not explore any of the contradictions within the genre, but rather glosses over them more effectively than any of the Merchant Ivory productions, which wrote the book on Raj nostalgia.

The film evades the fact that Edward's abdication was as much about his pro-fascist politics as his desire to marry a divorced socialite, and that he paid visits to Hitler and then to Franco's Spain after he left the throne.

It glosses over the schism within the British ruling class over appeasement versus confrontation with Hitler. Churchill is portrayed as a champion of democracy, while in actuality, he was a great admirer of the Italian fascist Mussolini and defender of Franco's Spain. The British ruling class was always clear, at least in private, that the war was about saving their empire, not stopping fascism.

The British Empire of The King's Speech is benign: forget about military "pacification" and dispossession on a mass scale, exploitation through forced labor, brutally undemocratic colonial administrations, dehumanizing racism and (actual) indentured servitude.

In her book Churchill's Secret War, historian Madhusree Mukerjee documents the decisions made by Churchill's war cabinet that precipitated the "Bengal famine" that killed an estimated 1 million to 3 million Indians in 1943. Churchill referred to Gandhi as a "half-naked holy man" and said on record, "I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion."

Across the empire, entire nations were conscripted to the war, even as they were denied the most basic civil rights by the racist powers waging it. This contradiction was a major impetus for the independence movements that swept the colonized world. And this was the first war to feature indiscriminate air bombing, nuclear holocaust and more civilian than soldier deaths.

LOGUE BECAME a speech therapist through his work with First World War soldiers. Speech impediments were epidemic among troops suffering from "shell shock"--the term used decades before the recognition of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rank-and-file soldiers were more likely to suffer from mutism, and the officer class to develop stammers. In Pat Barker's powerful novel Regeneration, Dr. Rivers, the fictionalized version of another real therapist who worked with veterans, explains why:

Mutism seems to spring from a conflict between wanting to say something, and knowing that if you do say it, the consequences will be disastrous. So you resolve it by making it physically impossible for yourself to speak. And for the private soldier the consequences of speaking his mind are always going to be far worse than they would be for an officer.

While Dr. Rivers, like Logue, pioneered humane psycho-therapeutic methods to restore soldiers' speech--he famously worked with poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon--the standard approach to mutism was brutally punitive: soldiers were accused of "malingering" and "hysteria." "Treatment" included verbal and physical abuse, including electric shocks applied to the larynx.

Dr. Rivers comes to the dreadful realization that his job is to patch up soldiers so they can return to fight and die in an unjustifiable war.

The structural irony of The King's Speech is that it takes us in the reverse direction: it humanizes and restores the speech of the figurehead of empire, while peddling the myth of the "good war"--a myth which has been used to sanction imperialist wars that kill and maim soldiers to this day.

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