I've just been released from the stocks set up on the red carpet outside the Kodak Theatre. As penance for ranting about two significant flaws in the palace tapestries (see my two most recent flogs), today I shall ponder the reason why we are so enchanted, notwithstanding the imperfections of the king's tailor, by the fabric of its story. Underneath that fabric is a heart that beats in sympathy with Dr. Jung and Dr. Campbell. You won't see their names in the credit roll, but their sway may be detected just behind the arras.
The movie rests its royal head on the satin pillow of a fairytale premise: every sorcerer in the kingdom is charged to cure the prince's stammer, to lift the evil curse placed on him at birth. Then, just when the prince's patience is exhausted with gimmickry and patent formulas, he commands that the search be halted. This is when the noble but suffering hero is usually in danger of losing heart (at a similar moment a frightened and confused Dorothy meets Glinda in Oz). But hark, a lowly toad-like healer from a far-off land ministering with unorthodox spells has been discovered by his princess in a Harley Street basement. Much is at stake here. If the prince's stammer is magically cured, the curse at long last lifted, the prince will be crowned king, and his kingdom will successfully ward off the attack of the fiercest dragon ever to face his people.
But fairytale sorcerers lay down their own edicts and decrees. Oh, yes, there are strings attached to this toad hall yarn. To avail himself of the gangly wizard's secrets, the prince must first comply with his conditions. "My palace, my rules," enunciates this peculiar shaman of speech. Bertie must first humble himself, must face his great trial as a man, before the curse may be entirely lifted and he is deemed worthy of his throne.
In T.H. White's marvelous The Sword in the Stone, poor little Ward, the future King Arthur, must accept the humiliations and animal transformations piled on him by his quirky but loyal magical mentor, Merlin. Similarly, Lionel's den transforms into a parallel kingdom where the prince must become your average Bertie, subject to the thrall of his sorcerer.
Our Lionel is an underground wizard; his credentials are nebulous; his den is positively subterranean. He operates below the establishment's radar and licensing rules. Strikingly rendered in tones of stone and earth, generations of paint peeling from its walls, his studio gives us a sense of a man-made cave burrowed deep into the earth outside society's glare. The obscurity of the den is as important to the prince as it is to the Sorcerer. Outside his den, the wizard's rules and powers become immediately suspect. During the walk Lionel foolishly proposes in the public park, Bertie is transformed back into the public prince who quite predictably explodes at Lionel's presumption of intimacy.
This passage into the incognito world of the average "Johnson" is as much responsible for the prince's transformation as are the physical exercises he undergoes. Lionel is not so much prying loose the prince's physical voice as he is burrowing deep into his psyche to his voice at its emotional source.
Quite properly in keeping with the fairytale world he's entering, the prince is first received into Lionel's den by a little boy. And it is to that same age that Lionel beckons him, as Merlin schooled the young Ward. And like the wily Merlin, Lionel never has any intention of keeping his pledge to work strictly on the mechanics of speech. He boldly smuggles in his incantations of school boy obscenities. How remarkable that the song the prince favors to express his deepest feelings is one based on a slave spiritual, Stephen Foster's "Swannee River." The antebellum African-American was enslaved by very real shackles, but here the prince's voice is chained by ego and etiquette. Earlier, Lionel had inquired of "Mrs. Johnson" whether her husband were an indentured servant. "Something like that," she replies. Later in the film, Bertie wails that he is king in name only, stuck in a role he never auditioned for. He is the most exalted indentured servant in history. But, the true hero, he accepts his burden for a cause larger than himself, the sake of his people.
Lionel brews himself a cup of tea during his first meeting with the duke to overturn the royal etiquette. (In Disney's version, Merlin is having tea when Ward first "drops" in on his forest cottage.) Lionel, like Merlin, doesn't need a cuppa. He is deliberately keeping the king waiting to set the royal conventions on their head. Lionel's kingdom is Bertie's stuffy real-world royalty seen the other way through Alice's Looking Glass. The servant is not here waiting on the king, but rather "waiting" for the king to awake from his accursed slumber. The tea ceremony is all part of the magic, of the ministrations, a sorcerer's potion that will goad the mute prince into song. Who but Lionel would dare refer to the monarch's flabby tummy?
Part of Bertie's problem is that he is completely spoken for -- pun intended. His loving and loyal wife speaks for him to Lionel, ignores her husband's ultimatum of no more speech doctors. Bertie's pop, King George V, can only wait a split second for Bertie to speak into the microphone before lacing into him. The archbishop cripples Bertie's spontaneity by reminding him of his weighty obligations and limitations. And good old older brother David is civil only so long as Bertie remains adoring. Once Bertie dares confront him, David wields his ancient w-w-wand and shuts his b-b-brother's trap for real.
Bertie is most at ease in the story when he himself is spinning a fairy tale. When his beloved daughters demand a bedtime story, he readily concocts a tale of transformation and a journey of acceptance. In his black-tie penguin outfit he flaps his flightless wings and recounts for his daughters the story of the loving father transformed into a waddling bird and dumped at the South Pole, who through perseverance and an expert knowledge of England's transportation hubs, returns to his family to embrace them.
Nor is Bertie the only "deformed" fairy tale hero in this movie. Lionel is himself a frustrated actor. The curse he labors under is that despite a golden tongue and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bard, Lionel cannot act worth a damn. On stage, he is as mute, in a way, as Bertie is before a microphone. It is no coincidence that Bertie portrays himself as a forlorn penguin and Lionel chooses to act out as a hunchbacked Caliban for his two children. In this movie, they team up to help each other attain his full stature -- Albert the full-throated king of the realm, and Lionel, the lionhearted star of King George VI's royal court.
The King's Speech is not, however, content to play its fairy-tale tune forwards, it also plays it in reverse. It is as much about the prince transforming into the frog as vice versa. The wireless is only the first modern event to threaten the fairy-tale existence of the Windsors. World war is brewing overseas and, as George V and the PM observe, England is going to need a very real leader as king to survive it. Bertie, unlike David, is fully aware of this condition and prepares himself for his emerging role outside the Windsor's fairy tale environs. In short, he has to learn, like a commoner, how to deal with his shortcomings head on. That is the real courage that Bertie exhibits. While David sinks further and further into Never Never Land with his Wicked Divorcee of the West, Bertie is manfully battling to break free of fantasy, to become a "real boy." As well as a real king.
When The King's Speech begins, the Windsors' long fairy-tale is under siege. As King George V explains to Bertie, until now all princes had to do was look good in uniform and not fall off their horse. Now, damn the wireless, they would have to start earning their living as radio actors. The talkies may have sunk John Gilbert and a raft of other silent film legends during the thirties, but not his royal highness King George VI. By the end, Bertie ascends into a sort of media celebrity. It's a true story of pluck and self-realization that would bring a tear to the eye of Horatio Alger.
The King's Speech is a diaphanous fairytale about a very real prince who must break free of his rigid, stifling, muzzling fairytale world in order to help rescue his country from a very real nightmare. Across the pond, Der Fuhrer ultimately got lost in his own wild fantasies of thousand-year reichs and Aryan supremacy. The stuttering prince and the bad actor from Perth teamed up to beat him and, of course, to live happily ever after.