What a terrific movie! One Oxfordians can enjoy on more levels than most viewers. For one thing, it’s full of Shakespeare references. The King’s speech therapist is an amateur actor who’s memorized a great deal of Shakespeare, as have his sons. He has the King, “Bertie,” aka George VI (played by Colin Firth), struggle against his disabling stutter by reciting “to be or not to be.” The whole film is a riff on how very “uneasy” lies the head that wears the crown, and how uneasily a nation is ruled by men who inherit the role, but who are not leaders by nature. In king after king, from Edmund Ironside and Lear to Henry VI, Shakespeare shows that none are without weakness or flaw: Edmund too trusting, Richard II too self-indulgent, Richard III wicked, Henry VI weak-minded, Lear naive. Even the greatest, Henry V, must struggle to overcome a mispent youth.
Of the older sons of George V, none are truly capable of leading the nation. The eldest, Edward, Prince of Wales, is appallingly weak, his attachment to his unpleasant American mistress and her Nazi friends a threat to the nation. So when destiny calls, it falls to his younger brother, who, unprepared for the role of national leader, must battle his particular disability, a terrible stutter that makes it not just difficult to speak in public, but impossible.
Is this just bad luck, a perfectly normal result of a throw of the genetic dice? No! It’s the inevitable result of the unnatural upbringing still perpetrated on the children of the English aristocracy. As Lawrence Stone shows in his Marriage, Sex and Society in England: 1500-1800, for centuries the traditions governing the raising of children were harsh beyond belief. Parents were constantly being warned that to show any leniency would end in disaster. Raised by nannies and governesses, children saw their parents briefly on occasions more like a drill sergeant’s review of his troops than a family get-together. By the age of seven or eight, girls were often sent to live and work as maid-servants with well-connected friends or family members, while boys were sent to boarding schools.
This kind of childhood was meant to prepare them for the hardships of adult life. Yet even as adults, children were still often not allowed to speak to their parents until spoken to, and when they did, would address them formally, bowing or curtsying like servants as they asked for their blessing. They were told who they would marry and were expected to toe the family line on everything. This would continue until the death of the father, at which point his heir would take on the same set of behaviors. (For more on this, see Born in sin.) The results of this kind of treatment were, to say the least, not always what one might wish.
That by the third decade of the 20th century, royal children were still being raised in much the same way is clear. Born left-handed, George was forced to use his right hand instead. Forced to wear a painful brace, he was not allowed to make the model airplanes that interested him, but must instead collect stamps, that being a more appropriate hobby for royalty. His father, George V, boasts of how afraid he had been of his father and how right it was that his sons should be afraid of him. The film also portrays the ways in which the supernumeraries that surround the younger royals subtly bully them into staying within the bounds of the age-old traditions they are determined to uphold.
The movie touches briefly on the sorrow attending George’s younger brother John. A sweet but simple-minded child who suffered from epileptic fits, the family was probably concerned that John would be used by the press to humiliate the family, so at twelve he was sent to live apart in the country with a nanny. No one was allowed to discuss him except among themselves. (An award-winning 2-part TV docudrama from 2003, The Lost Prince, tells the story.)
Although changes have taken place over the centuries, and today most English children of the middle classes are raised in a more relaxed fashion, for the children of aristocrats it seems the pattern of harsh or absent parenting––being raised by nannies and sent to boarding school at an early age––persists to this day. There is a poignant anecdote about Princess Diana. One day while at Sandringham with the Queen and family, when her boys’ nanny was taken ill, she rearranged her schedule so she could spend the day with her sons. When the Queen heard of it she told her that that wasn’t her job and instructed her to let the servants take care of the boys.
If drama consists largely of portraying contrasts, this movie is stuffed with them: We watch a man with the most desperate performance anxiety prepare himself to perform before the most appallingly vast public audience one can imagine on the grimmest of all subjects. Desperate to conquer his weakness, we watch as the daunting protocols of rigid royal tradition are bent to allow him to participate in the wildly creative gambits necessary to overcome his disastrous fear of speaking. We see the overprotected aristocrat, speechless with anxiety, forced into verbal contest with the most dangerously compelling guttersnipe ever born to shriek into a microphone. And this while the most distressing possible private family situation is made public against the backdrop an oncoming world war. All so beautifully and lightly presented; flawlessly sequenced; perfectly cast; creatively shot; each situation masterfully enhanced with appropriate music.
And one last commendation: it shows the gifted amateur, the ad hoc speech therapist, succeeding where a phalanx of “highly accredited experts” have failed!
Now for a movie as good as this one that tells the truth about Shakespeare!