Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The King's Speech: Beyond Nitpickery

I just want to point out something. I rant and rave and nitpick all about The King's Speech, but at the end of the day I haven't said the real problem with it. I've pointed out details, at flaws in storytelling, but the real problem of this movie is not storytelling. It's certainly not acting, nor is it writing. Well, actually it sort of is writing, but bigger than that.

It's symbolism. So think to yourself. What is a king's speech? What's anybody's speech? It's a symbol, more so because it comes from a king. It's a symbol of strength of a country, of belief in the future of a nation, or of the belief in the people of that nation. Specifically, the speech in the movie was a symbol that England was not going to roll over and let the Nazis defeat them. It was a symbol that England was going to fight and prevail, and if not prevail, then fill the Nazis with horror at the memory of having had to fight them.

Doesn't that sound nice? Doesn't it sound wonderfully strong and relentless? Deliciously barbarian and yet completely noble? Well, that's how it should have gone. The King's Speech had good actors and a good historical background, yet we can't judge a movie on its background, but what it presents. Yes, we all know that the King of Britain gave speeches, and it's true he was a stutterer that had to overcome it. Nevertheless, when you present the king in the movie as an overbearing emo kid that can't see out of his own personal sphere, you lose touch with the historical aspect of the movie.  Notedly, I've learned to be fine with embellishing history in movies. I love Braveheart, even though Robert the Bruce was decidedly more hardcore in real life and the Princess of Wales was a child when William Wallace was running about.

Actually, the movie I'm going to compare King's Speech to is The Stone of Destiny, a movie that came out not too long ago that was also about historical events at only a few years later setting: Scottish college student Ian Hamilton is upset with his countrymen and with Scotland's situation in general because everyone seems to have given up on being independent from Britain. He and three friends go to Westminister Abbey and steal the Stone of Destiny (AKA the Stone of Scone) to show Scotland that she is just as proud and independent as ever.

You will note that the Stone is the exact same thing as the speech: a symbol. It's a symbol of Scotland's kings and freedom. Okay, so we've got two movies side by side that are more or less historically accurate and both concern a symbol. Why then do I claim that Stone of Destiny is a far better movie than The King's Speech?

For the most part I find that the characters in Stone of Destiny are more endearing. They feel like real people. Each of them goes to steal the Stone for their own personal reasons, but also for Scotland: they feel this intangible, inexpressible love for their home, and even though it's the most silly thing in the world to think that stealing a dang rock from England will do much in the end, it's such a passionate thing to do. I understand their reasoning completely, even though they never explain this out. Moreover, their individual reasonings are perfectly human. Ian is tired of his country giving up and calling themselves "North England".  One compatriot wants to do something and be more than just a little nobody that everyone underestimates.  Another conspirator is a happy, humorous and entirely given to passion person, but at the end of the day he wants to be more than a joke. Kay is more sensible than the boys, but she too is swayed by her love of country. Everyone's reasoning is human and understandible. There's nothing fake about them.

Now, the lead actor from The King's Speech did a good job acting, and in many ways he was sympathetic. None of the other characters really are. I mean, you might think Geoffrey Rush's character was interesting, but I found it hard to sympathize with him. The primary reason for all of this is that all of them feel like stereotypes. You've got your "unorthodox" teacher-type, your wimpy and whiny preacher (some church dude none of the writers gave a crap about), your angry and ill-defined father type (the previous king), the "I must live my own life!" guy (elder brother David), and so on and so forth. How identifiable. Even the two cute girls that are supposed to be the current Queen of England and her sister are very dull and aren't given anything unique to do.

Of course, it's not all just about characters. My primary point is something else. It's symbolism. Okay, now in The King's Speech, they're about to get into the craziest war ever, involving the three most evil human beings to ever exist: Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung. They're going to be bombed, they're going to see the horrors of prison camps, children will be sent out of cities, and they're going to fight and die for their country. This is no joke. They're embarking on a crazy journey to save all of dang Europe! I hope Europe remembers to this day that much of it would not exist if it weren't for England.

This is quite a weighty matter, to say the least. What the crap is stealing a stone compared to it? A stone doesn't matter. Who in their right mind would trade victory over evil for a heavy chunk of sandstone? Why in the world do I dare believe that a story of stealing a symbol is better than a story of preparing for World War II?

It's all in the symbolism. In Stone of Destiny, all of them believed in Scotland. They loved her. While they had their own motives for going to steal the Stone of Destiny, at the end of the day they did it for their country. Even in the face of Kay getting sick or Ian getting caught, they refused to give up, because the symbolism of the Stone was important. They treasured the symbolism with genuine love.

Okay, so how did they treat symbols in The King's Speech? First of all, the king himself is one. He is a symbol of England's...something. I actually don't get why England still has royalty even though the Prime Minister is the guy doing everything, but if a royal is important to England, well, let them have one. It's their business. Anyway, he's a symbol of England's heritage. Rush's character insists that he and the king be treated as equals, and refuses to treat the king if they can't be on a first name basis. Thus, symbolism takes a hit. If kings aren't something "above" the normal populace (not in value, simply position), or at the very least people entrusted with the spirit of England, then what good are they? Aren't they just fancy-pants people supported by taxpayers, then?

Now, this alone I'd be fine with, as one can say it was necessary for the King's healing that he have a more casual relationship with his speech therapist. Perfectly fine. But then they start doing other things wrong. First, they don't show the two most relevant groups that show how important the king is as a symbol: there's the positive group, namely the people of England that need protecting/encouragement, and there's the negative group, the enemy. If there's no one to protect, why does the king matter? And if there's no one to defend against, same question? They show a scene comparing Bertie's oral skills to Hitler's, and that was a good scene, but other than that we never feel terror at the Nazis, or at least at war in general. People are consumed in meddling politics, David's trangressions, and Bertie's emo whining. So....ain't there like a war or somethin' about to go on then? You have to look at the bigger picture, Donna.

Then there's the coronation. I hate the preparation part the worst of all. At one point, Rush's character is running through the coronation vows, looking through it to see how much the King actually has to say during the ceremony. As he's going through the long parts that the administrator of the vows says to the King, he goes, "Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish". He could have easily said, "blah, blah, blah" or whatever. By directly insulting the words of this vow, he's attacking and diminishing a symbol. Likewise, Rush is trying to provoke the King in another bit by sitting in the ancient throne of British kings, which is normally reserved only for ceremony and no non-royal posterior dare touch. Ironically, the Stone of Scone is actually inside this throne under the seat, at which my heart turned angry. I'm Irish, not Scottish, but they are my family. We're the only true Celts left in the world. Leave the Celtic symbols alone!

So thus Rush disrespects another symbol. His excuse for this is he's trying to piss Bertie off, because Bertie talks better when he's mad. This is a very materialist view: symbols don't matter because they aren't physically real. The vow is nothing but words strung together and the throne is a dang old chair with somebody else's rock in it. If disrespecting these is what it takes to make the King talk better, then it's worth it, right?

Wrong. After all, what is all this speech therapy for? For Bertie, the next King George, to give a speech which inspires his nation and encourages them as they embark on a crazy war. The speech, of course, is likewise a symbol. It's just a bunch of words strung together, just like that "rubbish, rubbish, rubbish" vow. Wait, if the speech isn't important, why bother giving it? It's meaningless words. Why bother having a king at all? He's some emo kid on the public dime.

See, the value of symbols lies in your treatment of them. Speeches inspire because they are like song. They touch upon our innermost being and communicate to us the things we hold dear. They reach past the boundaries of language and past the daily grind to reach us at our core, where our deepest emotions and most well set beliefs lie. The Stone of Scone isn't worth anything because it's a stone, it's worth something because there's a whole bunch of Scots out there that love their country and believe better things for Scotland. It's worth something because the people of Scotland give it worth. It's terrible to destroy the Stone or disrespect it because then you would be simultaneously disrespecting the Scots. If we adopt a materialist view and see things as only worth what they phsically are, then we will never see anything better. After all, if Bertie's worth only lay in his ability at the beginning of the movie, by what right would we have to believe anything better for him?

You say I'm missing the point. You say that The King's Speech is about a man learning to become a symbol and his emotional journey along the way. Whatever. It is difficult for me to sympathize with someone who can't see outside his own problem. He doesn't persue a good voice out of love, but out of obligation. This symbol has failed. It gave a speech, but in the end, it was not for England. The end of the movie swells with triumph, happy for the king. There isn't even a hint at the darkness that is to face England for the next six years.

Because of the way England does its monarchs, a king's value is only in his symbolism. If a king stands only for himself, what good is he? Maybe you feel weak. Maybe you feel like the world has caught you in its clutches and you don't have the ability to proceed, just like Bertie. The easiest way to cure yourself is to remember that life is about everyone else. Forget yourself, and remember them. Then you will be happy.

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