A King’s authority – inherited or earned?

A review of The King’s Speech.

After years of wayward behaviour, Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. Two days later, the United Kingdom and France declared war on Germany. And so, an escalating global conflict became World War II.

On the evening of 3 September, from Buckingham Palace, King George VI addressed the nation and the Commonwealth. His role was to inspire his people for the tribulations ahead.

His Majesty had suffered from a stammer since early childhood. As he stood before the microphone in September 1939 he may have felt he was born for such a time as this. But it would have been deeply uncomfortable.

The King’s Speech” is the story of his preparation, over more than a decade, for that moment. Colin Firth plays the lead role, as Prince Albert (or Bertie), the Duke of York, later King George. His Golden Globe is well deserved.

There are excellent portrayals of other characters too. Among them, Queen Elizabeth (Bertie’s wife), George V and Edward VIII. Timothy Spall plays a delightfully observed Winston Churchill (prior to his premiership) and Geoffrey Rush is convincing as Lionel Logue, the Australian-born speech therapist to whom Prince Albert turns for help. I could go on.

The King’s Speech went straight to the top of the UK box office chart. It’s proving especially popular in the blogosphere where many have sung its praises as an example of their own good taste. That includes me.

There are exceptions, of course. Siôn Simon bemoans an “insidious anthem to the notion that nobility of birth and spirit are usually, if not always, linked.” This is simply untrue. Other main characters are noble by birth, but less so in spirit; and Logue, a commoner, is portrayed as dignified and honest. It is true that Bertie (as portrayed) was noble of both birth and spirit; but what else should we expect with Colin Firth in the title role?

It is a very human story of a man with a challenge, a critical weakness and a fear (glossophobia) which only serves to aggravate the problem. It recounts fascinating historical events that few of us know much about. It is a tale of another era, but not so very long ago. It is within the living memory of many: George VI was our last monarch and his daughter Elizabeth, portrayed as a small girl in the film, reigns today.

Inspiring fear in King George VI

While the whole films hangs upon the challenge posed by Bertie’s stammer, there is a more profound underlying theme. It is about the issue of authority: particularly the authority invested in a constitutional monarchy, and the earned authority of two men struggling to assert themselves. The first, of course, is Bertie. The second is Lionel Logue, under whose personal authority the King eventually learns to manage (but never fully overcome) his greatest weakness.

Many question the authority of Prince Charles, a man who has been heir to the throne since 1952, when he was just three years old. He has no real power, and in that respect little will change when his mother passes away. But there is real authority in his office. And through that, real influence.

One day Prince Charles will, probably, succeed to the throne. When that time comes, he will be invested with even greater authority. He will carry it willingly, but perhaps reluctantly. He will be measured by how he combines his personal authority with the authority of his office.

Bertie did not want to be King. For many years he did not expect to be. But when the time came, he accepted his duty and the responsibility that came with it. His challenge was to express his authority clearly.

By 1939, he was ready to meet this challenge. His speech is the climax of the film. It deserves to be seen. But the speech itself, the actual King’s speech, deserves to be heard. It is far from perfect. But heard in context, having seen the film, Bertie’s authority as King George VI is unambiguous.


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