The King's Friend...

Well, it's coming to the peak of the film awards season and in a year where every second film is in 3D the 2 most lauded are avowedly 2D, and focus on word and relationship rather than action and CGI. I haven't seen the mind-bending "Inception", nor experienced the feathers flying in "Black Swan", and I am hesitant to go see "True Grit" as I feel I would be betraying my mother who was John Wayne's No 1 fan bar none, but I have seen both "The Social Network", written and directed by the peerless Aaron Sorkin, and more recently "The King's Speech" and in my humble opinion, the latter deserves all the plaudits it has received so far, and should walk off with many effigies of Margaret Herrick's "Uncle Oscar" next week.

It is essentially a powerful 2-hander, with the backing of a superb ensemble cast. For me the only disappointing performance in the whole film was Timothy Spall's Churchill which was a complete caricature, but his contributions were blessedly brief, and the other supporting performances by Guy Pearce, Anthony Andrews, Michael Gambon and notably Helena Bonham Carter, whilst fleeting, were almost faultless.
The stars of the show, however, are undoubtedly Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush as, respectively, Bertie/George VI and his speech therapist Lionel Logue. But why did I tell you that? Given the current hype about the film I doubt that anyone in the English speaking world will be unaware of the premise of the film. And as for friends who have asked me not to "spoil" it by giving away the ending, well, there isn't actually much to give away if you have any knowledge of 20th century British history, even without knowing much about Bertie and his attempts to conquer his speech impediment. Some have criticised the film for deliberately whitewashing anti-semitism in the Royal family (unlikely given that members of the writer's own family died in the Holocaust) and painting George VI as a plaster saint, but that's not the point of the film. It isn't a documentary, and is factually incorrect in places, such as with Churchill, who was actually a friend of Bertie's brother David/Edward VIII, seeming to support the idea of abdication in this film. But, taking the general principle applied to history by Hollywood of never letting the truth stand in the way of a good story (although to be fair William Shakespeare also played fast and loose with historical fact when it suited him... see Macbeth for example) this is really a simple study of the relationship between 2 people- one a person of immense privilege yet aware of his limitations in the face of an undesired position of responsiblity, the other a person who looks beyond class and status to see and help the person beyond. The political backdrop is simply that, the scenery against which two actors at the top of their game work with an excellent script, crafted beautifully by David Seidler.

Seidler didn't compete against Sorkin for last week's BAFTA as "The Social Network" won the award for an adapted screenplay while "The King's Speech" was given the nod for an original work. The same rules apply for the Oscars. Unlike Sorkin, Seidler has no stellar screenwriting pedigree, but the subject matter of this film seems to have had great resonance with him. As a child he too struggled with a speech impediment, which he believes was brought on by the trauma of the early years of WWII in London, and more recently he has been struggling with throat cancer, while George VI himself died of lung cancer after years of heavy smoking, prompted in part (according to the film) by physicians suggesting that the smoke would help relax his vocal cords. At the BAFTAs it was said that George VI's speeches on radio were a great inspiration to the young Seidler, but apparently he didn't know, until starting to write the screenplay, that his uncle, who was also a stammer, had also been sent to Logue by his grandfather.

How much of the dialogue reflects the real interactions between Logue and Bertie (informed by the notebooks that apparently came to light only a few weeks before filming began) is unclear, particularly the "swearing scene" which nearly had the film classified as a 15. However, the interactions are compelling and the relationships entirely believable.

And for me this is the key to the film. A relationship that transcends class, and the therapist/client dynamic. The relationships between both protagonists with their respective wives and offspring are portrayed as loving, in many ways mirroring each other, but the relationship between Bertie and his parents and brother is portrayed as, at best, formal if not psychologically abusive... It's not a psychological detective story, so it doesn't go deeply into this, but it is the understood sub-text (and perhaps a little too obvious).

And this is where there are interesting parallels between "The Social Network" and "The King's Speech". Both deal with communication media, both deal with the issue of relationship... In the first we have someone who designs a whole new social medium largely because of his feeling that he was not at the "cool kids table" yet along the way he trashes the strongest friendships he has, reducing them, at best, to professional/commercial relationships... In the "King's Speech" we have someone who is at the very top table, yet also has real social and communication issues stemming from a sense of inadequacy, but who is helped to address (if not totally conquer) his communication problems on the radio at least, because of a professional relationship which becomes a challenging yet sustaining friendship.

This post has lain unfinished for about 2 weeks now, because I found it hard to put into words, not simply my response to this film as a superb piece of cinematic theatre, but also how it resonated powerfully in my life. I have little in common with the protagonists of "The King's Speech" nor "The Social Network", but if truth be told my social anxieties, and hence drive to achieve has echoes of facebook's Mark Zuckerberg (without his genius or economic success obviously). Recently that took its toll on me, but thanks to the support of friends and some professional help (from someone who is also a friend) I am going through a "King's Speech" experience... I've never had a speech impediment (except the stammer induced by French class, but that is a whole other story), but have had a serious communication problem... being unable to express how important my friends are to me.

So as part of that I want to put on public record how privileged I am to have an amazing range of friends around and about me... Not the cyber-contacts on Facebook, although many of my real friends do keep in touch through that medium, but friends from my teenage years, who have stuck with me through many twists and turns, and friends I have made through my professional life who seem to respect me, not only for what I can do but for who I am. I haven't always been good at protecting and nurturing my friendships, and some have unfortunately got swamped in the wake of my all too-hasty progress through life. I have swung between being pathologically nice, seeking to please, and culturing the "Mr Grumpy" persona, to keep people at bay, and thus protect myself from those whom I assumed only tolerated me because of what I bring to the table. I'm seeking to change that, in the knowledge that true friends, of whom I am blessed with many, will accept me as I am.

And the thing is, I don't believe I'm alone in this. And I think that is part of why "The King's Speech" is being so well recieved the world over. It's not simply the superlative performances of the lead actors, who deserve all their awards, but the story of someone discovering he has a friend who appreciates him for who he is, rather than for his office or abilities... Everyone needs a friend like that...


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