History will teach us nothing

The British have this knack. They take topics and plots that have a pronounced risk of ending up as high kitsch and bathos, and they make them work. Case in point: The King’s Speech. A predictable plot riddled with tired old tropes – a teacher and his reluctant student, a friendship across the classes, an eleventh-hour crisis, protagonists overcoming adversity and pulling off a climactic challenge to prove their worth to themselves and to others, growing in the process. We’ve seen these beats dozens of times.

In the hands of Hollywood, so far so nauseatingly familiar. But the Brits tend to add gentle self-mockery and ambivalence, two elements that are often absent in American treatments* of the same story. Perhaps it comes with being an old nation and losing an empire (“Now where did I put India?”). Whatever it is, it is my impression that English directors, writers and actors more consistently take the heroic and find the flawed, ridiculous and deeply human in it. Colin Firth’s Albert (later George VI – that’s twice the George that Mr. Speaks-to-Trees was!) is a figure of pity, first and foremost, not a hero in any conventional sense, yet the pity is tempered by the script’s wit and its sharp dialogues, played with relish by Firth and his Oz counterpart Geoffrey Rush.

That ambivalence more common to British films is also evident in The King’s Speech. Yes, the final scene of the film, the titular speech at the onset of the Second World War, is shown to give hope and unity to a kingdom in dire need of these things, but an encouraging regal speech notwithstanding, the country is still on the brink of a war that will kill millions. The victory is not of the fist-pumping, Independence Day kind – it is momentary and does not ignore the fact of the coming losses.

It’s the irony and ambivalence of the film, combined with the level of craft on display (much of the acting is quite wonderful), that make the film so enjoyable. They also cover the fact that The King’s Speech, for all its self-mockery, ambivalence and Firthery, is quite conservative, like so many vehicles for Imperial nostalgia. The eponymous King is taken down a peg or two by an Australian speech therapist with little respect for class or the monarchy, but he is elevated by the plot’s trajectory at the same time. The gentle subversion personified by Rush’s Lionel Logue in the end serves to reinforce the conservative structures. “It’s good and right that we have a king,” the film seens to propose, “as long as he pulls himself together and doesn’t forget he is human.”

The problem with this is that it buys into the notion that things were better in the past, that traditions have innate value and should be preserved, if at the cost of a few minor concessions to modernity. Especially when it comes to the monarchy, the film has an underlying hankering for the Good King. Its irony finally has an insidious side, because it emphasises that what is needed to overcome a crisis is a better king but not, heavens save us, a discussion about whether we need a king in the first place.

To get back to where I started: I enjoyed The King’s Speech a lot and I admire the acting craft on display. I also enjoy the way the Brits pull off nostalgia and pathos with a touch of self-mockery and ambivalence but I am wondering whether these result in questionable ‘eternal’ truths being propped up and reactionary values made palatable. Irony is the spoonful of sugar perhaps. Or perhaps I’m worried about the credibility of my wannabe neo-Marxist credentials crumbling under the stealth attack of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush being witty, touching and altogether entertaining. What’s an Elgar-loving pinko liberal to do?

*Not always, mind you. For instance, people rarely remember that the original Rocky ends with the titular hero’s defeat.