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