Over at Facebook, I was foolish enough to criticize the film The King's Speech, in a post which has attracted 37 comments so far, some from people who take critiques of films they like very personally. So I figured I might as well spread the controversy to the blogosphere.
Here's the deal: this is nothing more than a beautifully filmed and well-acted buddy movie, a kind of lame soap opera fit for PBS, and a movie that deftly affirms our post-modern existentialist sympathies while skirting the more serious issues it brings up. Why is it that Brits are so fond of things they don't believe in anymore, like the monarchy or Christ? Why is this movie so much like the Anglican church itself, an aesthetic exercise in nostalgia?
First of all, I don't deny that the heart of the story is redemptive friendship, and that it does a decent job telling that story. But so do lots of simpler films without the pretense.
Here we are given a story whose setting and plot present us with elements that are not resolved within the tale. Here we have a king who stutters and who needs to learn to speak so that he can lead properly. Why? Because leadership consists in public image, and we've got to assert a confident public image with Hitler lurking in the shadows. Is leadership anything more than good speechifying? Apparently not, for while we are given the foil character of the brother who abdicates, and who has no taste for the kingly burden, nothing is made of this in the film - and how can it be? The film presents us with a king who is politically castrated and who must follow the rules of the Anglican church, rules which prevent kings from marrying divorcees, rules which almost everyone in the West now thinks are ludicrous - and which are ironic given Henry VIII and all that.
The climax of the film is the successful radio speech. Further demands upon the king for leadership are glossed over. He has learned to present himself well, and so he has won. The unorthodox friendship has paid off. The sacrifices of the Britons and the allies who are the ones who will win the real victory are totally ignored. Sacrifice is not the issue; the resolution comes from Image, itself the result of Therapy.
And this is why I say this film fits right into our modern existentialist leanings. Movies have been telling us for decades that we can create our own meaning, and that faith in something is all we need, that confidence will get us through, and that (by extension) a confident bearing is the sum total of the demands of leadership.
Compare this with Shakespeare's notions of royalty. The film alludes to Shakespeare a great deal, but again only for window dressing. Shakespeare's tragedies deal with royal figures because each Christian has inherited the Kingly character of Christ, and must exercise this Kingly authority. What does that mean?
It means nobility. It means self-sacrifice. It means magnanimity. It does not mean self-indulgent hedonism (the movie presents that view of royalty in the character of the abdicating brother, but is afraid to stress the negative qualities of this hedonism, since the producers know the audience thinks the prohibition against divorce and remarriage is absurd). It does not mean learning to talk well.
A Facebook friend responded to this critique by calling me a bigot who has a strange antipathy toward the Anglican church. I assured her that as a former Anglican, I am not bigoted against the Anglican church. I am bigoted against Quakers. Then, on a more serious note, she suggested that public communication is central to leadership, which is why God agreed to let Aaron speak while Moses led.
This, of course, makes my point. Moses was the central leader of the Jewish people before David and before Christ. He led without a microphone, without a teleprompter, and without a PR firm. Aaron took the lesser chore, while Moses did the heavy lifting.
By contrast, The King's Speech ignores completely the deeper implications of kingly leadership, focusing only on the king's public image and his difficulty in maintaining it. The good speech is the climax of the movie and the resolution of the plot. I think that's simplistic and borne of an age that is all about the teleprompter.