While the multiple Oscar-nominated film The King’s Speech may be called a passably entertaining period piece, it is far from being a great movie. The fact that this film has won such overwhelmingly effusive plaudits from the Academy and critical establishment does, however, raise a fascinating question: Can a filmmaker, by referencing every acceptable cinematic “meme” and dishing out all the requisite thematic “tropes,” succeed at manipulating supposedly educated and erudite people into thinking that his film is far better than it actually is?
Put differently, can a mediocre and forgettable flick come to be regarded as “excellent” if it tells the chattering class exactly what it wants to hear and shows it just what it aches to see?
Apparently, the answer is “yes,” as always, which shouldn’t overly surprise us. The chattering class, for all of their chatter, are after all just like every other group of people; they have their own pet hobbyhorses and obsessions; they delight in certain types of settings and story arcs; they enthuse over specific actors and directors; their collective heart swells, as if on cue, at the passionate oration of particularly treasured sentiments.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that their aesthetic barometer is always wrong. The fact that The King’s Speech is sheer, unadulterated Anglophile porn by no means makes it bad; that it provides exquisite bait for the SWPL-set doesn’t mean that it’s disposable trash that ought to be reflexively shunned by white nationalists, pre-conciliar Catholics, home schoolers, paleo-libertarians, and other defiant dissidents on the alternative Right. In fact, the film is largely inoffensive, especially compared to other Zeitgeist-affirming heartwarmers and thrillers of recent years. It is nowhere near as obnoxious as, for example, last year’s Avatar, which successfully sold deracinated Western self-hatred to the drooling masses, who lapped up the cool 3-D special effects and awesome space battles and swallowed the accompanying poisonous propaganda with nary a choke or a sputter of protest. It is even slightly less offputting than The Last Station, the recent art-house biopic bore which tore all of the teeth out of Leo Tolstoy’s uncompromisingly ascetic, nonconformist thought, making him a cuddly and unthreatening old dullard who didn’t really mean all the wild and crazy things he said.
Still, while not quite a Two Hour Hate-fest of relentlessly “correct” thought-indoctrination, The King’s Speech does feature that combination always reliably loved and appreciated by our cultural cognoscenti: costumes and set pieces from the exotic, unfamiliar past presented in tandem with the advocacy of “safe” values from the dreadfully ubiquitous present.
Like 2006’s The Queen, this most critically fawned-over of new films take decided aim at the already much-assailed stiff-upper-lip mentality of stodgy old royalists, siding with a patently modern-day “better ‘out’ than ‘in’” kind of attitude. Like The Queen, The King’s Speech is not-so-subtly anti-hierarchy and pro-social equality, as well as being anti-repression and pro-emotionalism; it equates the unabashed use of profanity, for example, with a worthy liberation of spirit, even as it assails traditional ritual and formalism as an unavoidably bogus indulgence in pomposity.
Thus, while it doesn’t touch on racism, sexism, “homophobia,” or any of the other truly tiresome and egregiously fetishized hobbyhorses perpetually flogged by the ideological rulers of our age, The King’s Speech is nevertheless fully in lockstep with the Zeitgeist’s consistently selective deconstructionism: if a way of thinking is old, it ought to be challenged, and all of its surely abundant shortcomings exposed; if a mode of thought is modern, on the other hand, the truth of its premises are considered self-evident, and resisting it makes you a stick-in-the-mud at best, a villain at worst.
The film is, of course, “based on a true story,” a pronouncement which discerning moviegoers know to take with several grains, if not an entire shaker, of salt. The plot concerns the Duke of York (Colin Firth), the soon-to-be King George, and his struggles with a humiliating and debilitating stammer, making every public speaking appearance an ordeal for everyone involved. His unlikely (meaning highly predictable) savior turns out to be Lionel Louge (Geoffrey Rush), an avidly uncouth Australian-born speech specialist with (again predictably) unorthodox methods; indeed, his treatment includes a psychotherapeutic component, whereby a client relates the traumas of his past to his present speaking difficulties. The Duke, we soon find— much to our utter lack of surprise (we all know the script, don’t we?)—was treated unkindly by his family, whose emotional distance and frequent verbal abuse and mockery apparently traumatized him and provoked his speech problems when he was a boy.
For reasons never given, Lionel is completely opposed to such social conventions as calling people by their titles. He insists on calling the Duke/King “Bertie,” much to the latter’s initial chagrin; later, however, His Highness begins to come around; we are to think him commendable for losing his stuffiness and bearing with this wisdom-filled eccentric commoner (who later, we find, doesn’t even have a license to practice his trade). In a crucial scene, when the king-to-be is stressed out about his upcoming coronation ceremony, Lionel helps him get over his fear by mocking the event and calling it “rubbish, rubbish, rubbish”; he then enrages “Bertie” by brazenly sitting on the throne for a moment, a clear breach of protocol. But this is a part of Lionel’s plan to help his high-and-mighty charge get over his consternation; after weathering an angry tirade from the flummoxed royal, he then kindly takes to his feet and tells Bertie, “You’re the bravest man I know—you’ll make a fine King.” The king is mollified; he has had his Janov-like emotional outburst, gotten his rage out of his system, and is now ready to carry on with his kingly duties.
The relationship between the two men is thus analogous to the teacher-mentor pairing we have seen many times before at the movies. The teacher is, but of course, a “cool” kind of guy who breaks the rules and lets it all hang out; the mentor, on the other hand, is a stuffy, repressed character who learns, under the tutelage of his enlightened and free-spirited master, to cut loose and have a little fun. (Just once I’d like to see a movie about a “fun,” uncouth guy who learns to act dignified under the direction of a prim-and-proper teacher, but I’m not holding my breath…)
Again, The King’s Speech, for all of its dutiful recitation of post-‘60s clichés, is not an offensive film per se. It’s more of a dully predictable film about a supposedly exciting, allegedly UNpredictable character, one who’s unpredictable, as I have shown, in all of the predictable ways. Yet being told what we already “know”—about the badness of repression and tradition and the goodness of unorthodoxy and freethinking—is somehow meant to make for bracing cinematic fare. So the chattering class continues to titillate itself by flaunting its utterly boring, completely unsexy “kinks” before a progressively more mind-numbed and brainwashed world. And the Academy, as always, rewards such spectacle with fanfare and praise . . . and ever-more flatulent spectacle.