“I don’t want to spend two hours watching a movie about someone who stutters” grumbled my husband. “But I heard it’s fantastic,” I pleaded. He grudgingly agreed to watch it – and couldn’t stop thanking me afterwards. It took all my self-control to refrain from saying, “I told you so.” Wait a minute. All this writing about movies is making me confuse fantasy with reality. I didn’t refrain from saying it.
But we were both right. The movie was spectacular. And not just because the story, believe it or not, turned out to be gripping. Or because the acting was the stuff of Academy Awards.
It was actually because the lessons were profound, the struggles deep and revealing, and the issues grappled with universal.
We all have roles to play. Sometimes we embrace them. Sometimes we resent them
We all have roles to play. Sometimes we embrace those roles. Sometimes we resent them. Sometimes we rise to the occasion. Sometimes we chafe against them. Sometimes we do both. And in this struggle we may become great – or not. The King’s Speech presents both scenarios – taken from life, not fiction.
On the eve of World War II in England, the heir to throne was the elder son, David, a frivolous young man with fascist sympathies, in love with a twice-divorced woman. Upon his father’s death, David cries – not because he will miss his father but because he doesn’t want the responsibility. And in the brief time that he is King, he abuses his power – wasting money, maintains a close relationship with the German ambassador and behaves in a very un-regal fashion. He did not choose to “have greatness thrust upon them,” nor did he rise to the occasion. But perhaps it is unfair to completely condemn him. For in recognizing his limitations and in abdicating the throne, he paved the wave for someone who, although he struggled and although he was hesitant, ultimately became just the king England needed during those dark hours of the war.
Bertie, as he was affectionately known, never expected to be king. Burdened with a paralyzing stutter, he had no expectation of ever being called upon to lead his country or his people. In fact, his wife stated that she only agreed to marry him, knowing he would never be king (man plans and God laughs, as they say). But as students of Jewish history all know, a stutter does not stand in the way of leadership.
There are situations in life that call on us to take on roles we may not necessarily desire but which the times require. When Moses left Pharaoh's palace, the first thing he saw was an Egyptian beating a fellow Jew. The Torah tells us that Moses looked around and saw that there was no man. The simple reading may be that the “coast was clear” but the lesson is much deeper: he saw there was no one else taking responsibility; therefore he had to act. Or, as it says in Ethics of Our Fathers, “In the place where there is no man, strive to be a man.” We may not be the best qualified person but sometimes there is no one else who will step up to the plate. Certainly this is true in the case of an inherited position like the English royalty.
Although Bertie did not want to be king, although he was keenly aware of his own imperfections, he loved his country and his people. He had a strong sense of duty and wouldn’t shy away from responsibility, however painful.
And so begins his humiliating and humbling relationship with Logue, his speech therapist, and ultimately friend. Logue forces the King to acknowledge his childhood traumas and pain, to face down his fears, and to break through his self-imposed loneliness. In opening himself up to friendship and in experiencing unconditional love and respect, Bertie finds the courage to be a real person, to become the man his nation needs.
Through hard work and determination, his sense of responsibility propels him forward. Encouraged by his wife and supported by Logue, he is able to inspire Britain on the eve of war and rise to the role demanded of him. The King of England.
But he has also recognized the restrictions of Kingship not as sacrifices but as necessary prerequisites to his royal role. He will make sacrifices because the job demands it. He has not lost himself in his role; rather, he has become greater.
This would be inspiring enough if it were a Disney story. But it’s not. It’s the King of England, leaving his privileged existence to seek the services of a “commoner” whose superior and specified skills he needs. Very few leaders possess that humility or honesty. And because they are human, they struggle in their relationships with those who “serve” them. Bertie also struggles with this challenge but he always recognizes his mistakes and ultimately defends Logue against any detractors.
The King’s Speech is a story of responsibility that we can all learn from, even those of us not destined for Windsor Castle. It’s a story of perseverance and determination, and of the true meaning and power of responsibility. It’s a tale of duty and responsibility, of friendship and humility. And love.
Not wonder all the critics loved the movie. It has all the elements of a great story.