Notwithstanding the obvious proximity bias, The King’s Speech is one of the best films I have seen this year. The two leads, Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth, are both incredible, with Firth in particular disappearing into the role of the stuttering (and slightly lisping) Prince Albert/King George VI. It’s essentially a film about trust and friendship, and the climactic scene, when Logue is literally conducting the King through his first wartime address, is simply gorgeous.
But the main topic of consideration here is trust of a different sort. It is in many ways a film about the British constitution, and the fact that it rests on a total con. On the one hand, the country officially a monarchy, with all the anachronism and pompousness that entails. But at the same time, it is a monarchy that survives only because the public allows it to. And so some of the most telling moments in the film play off this basic tension, between the King who has tremendous responsibility, but very little real power.
So we get the wastrel King Edward VIII, complaining that everyone else gets to marry for love, why shouldn’t he get to marry Wallis Simpson? He is checked by the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, who says that in such circumstances, the government would be compelled to resign. Then there’s a fantastic scene where King George VI orders Lionel Logue out of his chair. By what right, asks Logue? By divine right, the King answers, choking on its preposterousness even as he says it.
Brokered over the past thousand years, the British constitution is one of the most remarkable political institutions the world has ever seen. The amount of trust involved in making it work is phenomenal, and it requires a healthy understanding on all sides of the place of tradition, convention, and habit. Ever since Queen Victoria died, the overriding function of the British monarch has been to maintain that trust. Had he tried to remain king, Edward VIII might well have destroyed the monarchy. As it turns out, George VI saved it, and his daughter, Elizabeth II, has done more than anyone might have expected on that score.
In this sense, The King’s Speech is a thematic prequel to the 2006 film The Queen. That film takes place during the early days of the Blair regime in 1997, mostly in the week between Diana’s death and her over-the-top funeral. The narrative, such as it is, arcs over the Royals’ initial low-key reaction, the public outrage over the Queen’s refusal to show any emotion, and the final decision by Liz and Phil to do a walkabout outside the Palace, put the flag at half-staff, and have the Queen make a public statement about how important Diana was, &c.
The central figure of course is the Queen. Her job is to serve as the living embodiment of those centuries-old traditions. But it requires a tricky bit of balancing: Adhere too much to tradition and you look irrelevant and out of date; pander too much to fashion or public opinion and you might as well become a republic.
The Queen dramatizes the moment when Her Majesty realized she had lost touch with the British people. Not only did she not approve of the gross displays of sentimentality that followed Diana’s death, she felt that her job was to temper it, not indulge it. Believing in the essential good sense and sobriety of her subjects, she felt that if she led, they would follow. She was wrong.
Walter Bagehot famously enumerated the three remaining rights and powers of the English Crown: The right to be consulted, the right to advise, and the right to warn. She reminds Blair of these rights at their first meaning, giving him a fairly direct warning about constitutional adventurism [which, events have shown, he failed to heed]. But by the end of the film it is Blair who is doing the advising and the warning, to a sovereign whose position has become quite precarious.
In retrospect, the parallels with the abdication crisis are stronger than I would have thought.