The King’s Speech: Jane Austen, Winston Churchill, the airbrush and the Vaseline


The King's Speech: film poster

Warning: this is not a proper film review, just a few thoughts on Jane Austen and on the ethics of historical fiction. For one thing, I must say that found watching The King’s Speech wonderfully satisfying, as a sort of anti-Black Swan experience. A careful, unobstrusive direction, the compelling story of a man overcoming the traumas of an icy childhood and a crippling disability, and a sterling cast. The film fairies seem to have blessed this craddle.

Note that the style of acting here is the polar opposite of Natalie Portman’s in Black Swan. We are not dealing with bravura exercises aimed at wowing the Academy. No, the acting is so good that I barely noticed it. Colin Firth simply is Bertie, the Duke of York, later George VI, even though he doesn’t look anything like the real King. Geoffrey Rush is authoritative, funny, eccentric, competent, warm, shabby, kind, moving, Australian, as speech therapist Lionel Logue. And Helena Bonham Carter, while remaining her lovely self, manages an uncanny resemblance to Queen Elizabeth, later the beloved Queen Mother. Even though the part she really coveted was that of George VI… Derek Jacobi deserves a special mention for his performance as Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, performance which was snubbed by awards of every stripe. But we hardly need their imprimatur to be reminded of Sir Derek’s charisma, do we?

In addition to the qualities outlined above, readily apparent to all, this film has another merit from my standpoint: it allowed me to shelve my animosity towards Colin Firth. Oh, I have always considered him a very accomplished actor, and I have not the least reason to think ill of him personally.

No, what happened is that Mr. Firth played the part of Mr. Darcy in the 1995 A&E adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. An excellent adaptation, by the way, though cheapened by the screenwriter’s Darcy-centric emphasis. As a result, Colin Firth, in full Darcy regalia, is everywhere at Chawton Cottage, Jane Austen’s home, the hallowed place where she wrote most of her works, on an endless array of fridge magnets, tea towels, mugs, notepads, pens, decorative plates and buttons. Moreover, this onslaught of tawdry knickknacks, offensive as it is in such a place, highlights the tragic fact that a number of pseudo-Janeites/Colin-Firth-groupies have never bothered to open any of Austen’s novels. “Insufferable!” as Elizabeth Bennet would say.

I have repeated to myself over the years that Mr. Firth is not to blame for this sad state of affairs, that he may even on occasion have rued the day when he agreed to take the Darcy part and don a wet shirt. I read his interview in the delightful Making of Pride and Prejudice. His analysis of the Darcy character, though I dont’ agree with it, shows a genuine reflection on the novel. Yet every time I saw him playing another -often totally unrelated- part, his Darcy performance and its unfortunate associations intruded in full force. Now The King’s Speech has exorcised these misguided feelings, and heretofore I will be able to watch Colin Firth without irrational hostility.


Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy

While we are on the topic of Jane Austen, I will further remark that Jennifer Ehle, who played Elizabeth in the same 1995 Pride and Prejudice, and whose name was for some time afterwards romantically linked to that of Mr. Firth, appears in the film as Mrs. Logue, the therapist’s mousy wife. What a waste of a brilliant actress: she is so much of a nonentity that Mr. Logue might as well have conjured up their children out of thin air. Further Austenian musings: it struck me that Helena Bonham Carter (whose cousin Crispin Bonham-Carter was Mr. Bingley in the same adaptation) would have made a wonderful Elizabeth Bennet. It is probably too late in her career for that now, but I can still imagine her as an excellent Mrs. Bennet. Or perhaps she could be persuaded to play my namesake Lady Catherine… Finally David Bamber (the onctuously sinister Reverend Mr. Collins) has a cameo appearance.

So the film is a treasure trove of associations. I assume this is no coincidence and was designed to appeal, or pander, depending on one’s point of view, to Janeites like me. In this case, I am perfectly happy to be pandered to.

My reservations rest with David Seidler’s award-winning screenplay. As I was watching, I was surprised by the stand Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall, caricatural and the weak link in the cast) was taking on the issue of the abdication of Edward VIII (Guy Pearce, who gives us a very creditable villain.) I remembered, contrary to what is shown in the film, that the future great man had come out in strong support of the King and his intention to make Mrs. Simpson his Queen, although the latter, among other details, (1) was still married to Mr. Simpson, (2) had an affair with Joachim von Ribbentrop, then Hitler’s ambassador to London, and (3) was suspected of being an agent of Nazi Germany.

I am no British history buff, and dismissed these concerns while watching the film: I probably misremembered my facts. Well, it turns out that I was right: Churchill had indeed bet on the wrong horse that time, as explained by Christopher Hitchens in Slate. Furthermore, Mr. Hitchens notes that George VI had been a very public supporter of Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement towards Hitler, an inconvenient fact the film carefully sweeps under the carpet. I don’t often espouse the views expressed Mr. Hitchens, whom I consider a master of the art of provocation and find a tad harsh on the House of Windsor, but here I have to applaud his phrase “the airbrush and the Vaseline.”

And pray how would it have hurt the film to be historically accurate? I, for one, have never subscribed to the doctrine of Churchillian infallibility. And Churchill is but a secondary character here, so who cares if his judgment failed him on that momentous occasion? On the contrary, it might have added dramatic tension to show him preferring the glamourous if Nazi-loving Edward VIII to the stuttering younger brother. As for George VI, it might have been more interesting to have him realize the error of his politics before he and his Queen became the symbol of British wartime unity and resistance to Nazism.


The King's Speech: Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter

The film’s airbrush-and-vaseline approach is not limited to the political side, and carries into the personal realm as well. The historical George VI was by all accounts a loving husband and father, a devoted family man. Yet the manner in which the film shows these admirable qualities turns by comparison any episode of Leave it to Beaver into a marvel of moral angst and emotional complexity. In spite of Bertie’s notoriously short temper, he and Elizabeth never fight. She is all patience, all support, all the time, he is all appreciation, all the time. If such couples exist, I have yet to meet them. It follows that the relationship between the King and his therapist must alone carry all of the dramatic tension.

So I will go back to my first impression: watching this film was a pleasure. Remembering it a few weeks later leaves a treacly taste in my mouth. To quote Jane Austen, “pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked.”

Now a bit of Oscar pronostication, just for fun. I think Colin Firth is a sure bet for Best Actor. Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter have a fighting chance. Note that the latter, in spite of being the female lead here, was nominated in the Supporting Actress category, I suppose because Natalie Portman, for all intents and purposes, has already secured the Best Actress In a Lead spot for Black Swan. For the Best Picture category, I am not so sure, though I infinitely prefer The King’s Speech, flaws and all, to Black Swan or the pretentious and incomprehensible Inception. But then the Academy and I have been known to disagree…

Please feel free to join in with your own bets. The readers who accurately predict every Oscar in the above categories will receive a free yearlong subscription to Versailles and more!

PS: Hold on, just before this went to press, I found this reply from Mr. Hitchens to Mr. Seidler’s response to the above article. And here is a piece by Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic criticizing the film’s historical accuracy, or lack thereof.

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17 Comments to “The King’s Speech: Jane Austen, Winston Churchill, the airbrush and the Vaseline”

  1. Matthew Baker says:

    I think you are being just a tad unfair to Timothy Spall. You are right about the problems in the way Churchill is presented but that is hardly the actor’s fault. The consummate professional did the best he could with what he was given and, if it verges on caricature, I am inclined to suspect the writing and directing to be to blame, not the work of the man who dazzled so beautifully in ‘Secrets and Lies’ and ‘Topsy-Turvy’.

    On another historical note, Churchill was at the center of my biggest complaint: There is a scene in which he says that Bertie should not ascend the throne with the name, Albert, because it is “too Germanic”. In fact, there was a standing agreement between the sons and grandsons of Queen Victoria that no man would ever ascend the throne of England under the name of Albert. There was only ever one Albert to hold that position. That is why Bertie used the name George.

    My only other disagreement with your excellently written article is this: While we share an admiration for the brilliant Sir Derek Jacobi, I’m sorry but casting him in a movie about a stutter is simply distracting!

  2. Catherine, I came across this post, post-Oscars, but I thoroughly agree with your assessment of the historical accuracy issues in “The King’s Speech” (would it have killed them to make Churchill’s character — and political POV — both clear and accurate?) Ditto the Hitler associations with Edward VIII and Wallis. I also agree that Spall, good actor though he is, is the weak link in this cast and is utterly miscast in the role. For one thing, he’s about a foot too short to play Winston Churchill, so anything he does is going to look caricaturish even before he utters a word. Continuity issues were a problem as well for me. Logue first worked with Bertie in 1926 and the film’s timeline is confusing; you think it’s right around the time he becomes king. So while I am glad that the movie has garnered as much acclaim as it has because I write nonfiction books about some of these royals, a clearer screenplay would not have damaged or in any way altered the film they were making.

  3. – Penny, if you liked the 95 P&P, you will enjoy this one, if only for the memories!
    – Yvonne, I won’t rush to the theater for seconds, but I too will probably watch it again in a few months to see how my impressions of it have changed (or not…)
    – Elisa, thanks for the tip! I will look for the clip.
    – Anielka, thanks for your appreciation! :) I find it annoying to read over and over that people were opposed to the Edward VIII-Wallis match because she was a divorcee. No, it was the reverse! People were peeved because she was NOT divorced from Mr. Simpson (and would not be until months after the abdication.) I think the fact that she was still married was at the time a very big deal, and has since been played down. At least the film gives us a historically accurate take on the future Duchess of Windsor. The actress looked a lot like the real Wallis too.
    I hadn’t noticed the continuity issues, which seems to prove I was entranced by the performances. I can’t wait to see the outcome at the Oscars.

  4. Anielka says:

    I loved your turn of phrase when describing Queen Wallis of Baltimore’s shortcomings as “the latter, among other details, (1) was still married to Mr. Simpson, (2) had an affair with Joachim von Ribbentrop, then Hitler’s ambassador to London, and (3) was suspected of being an agent of Nazi Germany.” And the treacly taste evokes your enjoyment of the film.

    I too loved it but the continuity was somewhat average. Helena Bonham-Carter’s veil was going up and down like a car-park elevator and Geoffrey Rush managed to top up a full glass of whiskey, fill it with less whiskey, put it in the wrong glass and then drink from Bertie’s glass himself. Almost prevented me from suspending my disbelief. Fortunately Colin Firth’s completely incredible rendition of Bertie’s speech patterns had my jaw firmly attached to the floor.

  5. Elisa says:

    Back in 2002 and repeated in ’05, “Bertie & Elizabeth” was on PBS’s “Masterpiece Theater” as part of that season. There was a short scene of the royal couple working on his speech therapy exercise. The show may be found in the “Masterpiece Theater” online archives.

  6. yvonne says:

    I saw this movie and I will
    see it again. Loved every minute of it.
    Recommend everyone to see it.


  7. Penny says:

    thank you for your comments on the movie, It does seem like one i would like to see when it is on netflix. and I love your comments on the casting of former P&P actors. How often does that happen and it must have been on purpose because it was so popular. and that is why Chawton takes advantage.

  8. – Elizabeth, I have my own issues with Keira… You are most welcome, and I hope you enjoy this film, for it is indeed very enjoyable.

    – Arnie, I too loved Memento. See, we agree about 50% of the time based on this limited sample! I disagree, though, with your contention that historical accuracy would have made the film too complicated for its intended audience. I find this argument a bit patronizing, and certainly a competent screenwriter should be able to convey to the average movie-goer the notion that good, well-meaning people can make grievous mistakes. And the issue does have contemporary relevance, as you point out.

    – Kate, well, saints are human, therefore sinners, so I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain or use the f*** word. Especially since Bertie uses profanity at Logue’s urging, with a purely therapeutic purpose in mind. Firth/Darcy’s wet shirt… ahrrr! Note that in the dismal 2005 P&P, they still managed to get Darcy soaking wet (in the downpour proposal scene, if my memory serves me well.) And thanks for your Oscar predictions. A pity I won’t be able to watch live from Europe.

  9. Kate Warren says:

    I too loved the film. However, I am inclined to agree with the writer’s stance regarding the historical issues, and at no point did I see him presenting George VI as saintly. Elizabeth, yes, but not Bertie. Saints don’t use the “F” word. ;)

    The picture perfect marriage issue comes up because the focus of the film was Bertie’s struggle with his speech impediment and his friendship with Logue. There simply wasn’t time to create an accurate portrait of the marriage as well. In a miniseries format I believe we would have seen a great deal more between Bertie and Elizabeth.

    I had to smile at your Colin Firth issues. For my part I never thought of him as “book Darcy.” I’m reminded of a friend who sat in a theater watching the 2005 film of “Pride & Prejudice” and overheard the following, said during the first scene at Pemberley, about Mr. Darcy: “Isn’t he supposed to be wet? Where’s the lake?”

    I predict Colin Firth will get the Best Actor trophy. I’m hoping “The King’s Speech” wins Best Picture. Best Actress will either go to Natalie Portman or Annette Bening. Best Supporting Actress will probably go to Melissa Leo, though Helena B-C and Amy Adams are still in the running. Best Supporting Actor is a race between Geoffrey Rush and Christian Bale. I think Best Original Screenplay will go to “The Kids Are Alright,” but “The King’s Speech” has a good chance for Best Score. I expect the costume, makeup, and art direction awards to go to “Alice In Wonderland.”

  10. Some day I might want to look at that history more closely, it certainly has contemporary relevance, doesn’t it?

    As for Inception, I did not loathe it, I just felt very detached from it–it did not move me at all. Which is how I felt about The Dark Knight and The Prestige, too, earlier films by Nolan. But….I loved Memento, that was where his allegorical storytelling really clicked for me on multiple levels.

  11. Elizabeth says:

    I have yet to see this movie, which I know is a shame, but I plan to fix that as soon as Netflix sends me a copy! It’s unfortunate that there are so many time constraints on movies because I think that weighs heavily on how the writer defines the characters, or maybe that’s a sweeping assumption I am making.

    I did find it interesting how many actors from P&P were showing up in this movie and I understand your feelings of disgust with some actors for no real fault of their own – I have the same hang-up with Keira Knightly, which kept me from watching ‘The Duchess’ for so long. I look forward to this movie just to see Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth acting together. Thanks for the review!

  12. Arnie, am I really a curmudgeon? :)
    On the historical accuracy issue, again, I am no British history expert, but what Hitchens writes about Churchill is exactly what I recollect. About George VI’s politics, Hitchens is backed up by Isaac Chotiner. I don’t wish to demonize George VI for his appeasement stance, mind you. That was an all to common error in those days, and no one, not even the Nazis, anticipated then the true horror of their regime. The Wannsee Conference is 1942, I believe. However, I fault the screenwriter for presenting George VI as a fast-track candidate for canonization.
    So you too loathed Inception?

  13. Ellen, it seems that our impressions, down to our admiration for Derek Jacobi, were similar. “All piety” is an excellent way to put it.
    Biutiful is not playing anymore here, and it’s not out in DVD yet. I do want to see it after reading your review and other opinions.

  14. Catherine,

    Thanks for being a curmudgeon and raising these questions about George VI’s’ politics pre-War. If Hitchens has it right (and I would want to triple check his history, too), then your suggestions for how the film could have shown those additional “warts” of George VI, as well as his obvious goodness, would have made the film even more poignant, although I also fear it would have made the film a little too complicated for the wide audience this film sought.

    All the same, I am glad for your perspectives, and even though I continue to strongly disagree with your take on The Black Swan, I am glad we agree on Inception, as to which my response was almost identical to yours.

    Fascinating stuff!

    Cheers, ARNIE

  15. ellen moody says:

    I too liked the acting and general performance of the film (production design, costumes, all the filmic pleasures), but registered real doubts about the content. My blog was the film won’t bear real thought about what we are shown:

    By contrast, Javier Bardem and the whole cast are equally fine actors, and the production and design and all that goes with it equally apt to the content, but this time the content speaks to us for real:

    The first film does show the limitations of the Masterpiece style adaptations. It’s not fair to condemn them all, for many do speak to us about today through history. This one was all piety.


  16. This is an original screenplay, so there’s no book. And I did watch the film… :)

  17. P4p3rDr4g0n says:

    I read the book. Very good I think. Too bad the media is so ajnározza. Many people do not even want to know why. I think you should read or watch the movie. I can recommend it to everyone.

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