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Au Contraire: Double Take -- Another Look at The King's Speech

02/21/2011 04:54 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Au Contraire -- a series of occasional contrarian rants against prevailing critical tides. This is the second of three contrarian rants on The King's Speech, the reigning film of the hour.

In Bertie's very first visit to Lionel's den, Lionel solves the prince's stammering riddle that has bedeviled every orthodox voice specialist in Britain. He straps the headphones to Bertie's royal noggin and with Figaro occupying his auditory nerves, Bertie gets up his vocal nerve to speak Hamlet's speech trippingly off the tongue.

But we're done now, surely. Problem solved. The mechanism the prince sought has been duly purveyed. He may now give a Christmas speech over the wireless as well as Herbert Beerbohm Tree reading the ingredients from Fortnum's mince pies. From the moment the new American apparatus is clapped on, the outcome of the eponymous speech the movie drives towards can no longer be in doubt. The only suspense left perhaps is where Lionel should send his bill. The BBC has another classic 50-minute Masterpiece television drama in the can. But instead of the onset of cheers and tears of joy, our story about the vicissitudes of the wireless invasion begins to go haywire.

The movie simply and inexplicably ignores this momentous plot point. The expert the prince has sought out commends his reading as "sublime," and what? Hearing that verdict, Bertie storms out?

Must have been a very interesting day on the set. Colin to director:

"Oh, Tommy, wouldn't the prince have a listen while he's already there?"

"Nice thought, Colin, but actually no; you see Bertie has endured so many dozens of failed experiments by such a raft of quacks, he simply can't bear another, so he lashes out to preempt a further humiliation."

"It would only take two minutes, Tommy, and it might change his life."

"Think your motivation through very carefully here, Colin. I don't want you to lose the thread so close to the web. True enough that if our boy, Bertie had listened he would have been delivered of all the problems he had come to solve. But what would that have made our Bertie? A simpleton! No, Bertie is given the answer he has sought throughout the land, on a silver platter, and bearing up under the enormous strain of his success, he brushes it aside, scuttles the platter to the ground, and head erect, he dashes from the studio, returns home to the palace and does what only Bertie knows how to do."

"Ah-hah! I go home to the palace and I start giving speeches from somewhere deep inside me because I've never needed the damn stinking new-fangled American headphones in the first place!"

"No, in fact, old chum, you march out to your carriage and you go back to your palace, and you give it the old royal sulk; that's what you do; sulk as only a prince can sulk."

Colin's spirits pick up when he realizes that after the long sulk scene he will eventually play the LP anyway.

"I see now, Tommy, if my character had listened to the LP then and there in Lionel's studio, we would have missed that very long sulk scene. And that would have been an artistic loss. "

"Now, you're on our team, Old Prince."

"I see where we're going now. This is the scene where Helena and I sitting in the palace confirm the wonders of the headphone method and now we spend the rest of the film listening to me giving inspirational speeches on the wireless."

"Not quite, old chap. This is the scene in which you completely and unequivocally validate the headphone method and then never ever refer to it again. Once we see that the headphone method solves all the wireless problems, you never touch the nasty contraption again. "

"But why, Tommy, why?"

"Because those headphones would muss up that lovely curly dishy coif on your top, that's why. No, silly. You want to use profanity, don't you? "

"Naturally!"

You want to waltz with Geoffrey Rush, don't you?"

"Who wouldn't?"

"You want to warble "Swanee River," don't you?"

"From the rooftops!"

"Well you can't have everything, Colin."



You Can Have Everything

Rewind with me a moment. Let us add another beat to the plot.

The first act ends with exultation at the moment the Prince, still in Lionel's studio, listens with his incredulous wife, to the immediate transformation to the prince's speech. Their problem solved by the technological miracle, the royal couple return to the palace where they drink champagne and listen to his LP as they might to Caruso. The next day the paraphernalia arrives and the prince tests it again and to their mutual delight, the same blessed result is achieved.

The Prince exudes confidence in this new act with his secret weapon humming in his arsenal. He uses the headphone method to give a successful wireless address. Everyone, including the archbishop, is duly impressed. But off mic, Bertie continues to be frustrated by his personal confrontations with his brother David, and his father, the King -- instances in which his secret weapon cannot shield him. It's now that the prince begins to understand that the mechanical solution to his wireless problem isn't by itself sufficient. It isn't the wireless, after all, but his own wiring which needs new circuitry. When he and his wife hurriedly return to Lionel's den, Bertie is there completely of his own volition with the understanding that the technology in the end is a superficial fix that simply circumvents the source of his impediment. The prince now is prepared to dig deep inside himself and his troubled past to confront his father and his brother. And himself. Now all the character work (which reminds me of Cicely Berry, the voice doyenne at the RSC) works vitally towards that end.

Finally, when it's time to give the king's speech, it's Bertie's decision to leave the headphone in its box and to face his people with open eyes and ears, mind and heart. He's not content with buying the app to his microphone; he has found the source of his voice and it is from that source that he now speaks.

We've filled in the gaping hole in the film's logic and added a believable plot point just where the film desperately needs one.