'Speech' brings street-level wisdom to aristocratic arrogance

There is a scene in “The King’s Speech” that illustrates the impenetrable chasm between the lofty heights of British royalty and the stumbling, forelock-tugging serfs who ostensibly represent the majority of the House of Windsor’s subjects.

Stunned to discover King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, in her shabby little drawing-room, the déclassé Myrtle Logue (Jennifer Ehle), wife of the elocution instructor at the heart of the tale, emerges from her incredulity long enough to whisper, “Will their majesties be staying for dinner?”

Airily, the queen (Helena Bonham Carter) responds, “We’d love to — such a treat,” before citing a previous engagement, the pretext delivered with the gentlest brush of condescension. She might just as easily have said, “Never in a million years.”

Moments such as these, revelatory as they are about Britain’s domineering ruling classes, have always mined American film audiences’ desire to experience the rarefied regality that, along with narcissism and simmering scandal, seems to pervade life in the stately homes of England.

Even more fascinating are movies in which commoners knock the high-flung down a peg — street-level wisdom as antidote to aristocratic arrogance. “The King’s Speech” is one such film.

“It’s almost as though the only guy who could save Bertie was someone from another class and cultural level,” says director Tom Hooper, using the royal family’s nickname for King George VI (Colin Firth), whose tempestuous relationship with the Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) leads the self-conscious monarch to overpower his affliction and become the wartime leader that few predicted he could be.

No one in the king’s own circle could help him, Hooper says, because they were constrained by the same limitations of protocol that had for years prevented the future monarch himself from seeking professional counsel elsewhere. Logue, on the other hand, feels no such inhibitions, and casually tells his patient, “You’re not my king.”

In the two protagonists’ most acerbic confrontation, as they walk through the fog-shrouded palace grounds, Logue attempts to counter Bertie’s reluctance to ascend to the throne by telling him that he is “not some middle-class banker.” Riled, Bertie goes on the attack, calling Logue “the disappointing son of a brewer, a jumped-up jackaroo from the outback.”

Hooper, offspring of an Australian mother and an English father, describes members of the royal family as “terribly repressed,” and their relationship with their subjects as complicated.

“People respect them, but at the same time they’re intrigued by the soap-opera aspect,” he says. “The royal family is seen as enshrining an idea of class and privilege, which is possibly inappropriate in a modern democracy.”

The king’s subjects, fully aware of his speech impediment, rallied around him, hoping as they gathered around their radios that he would not drown in protracted silence.

“Everyone wanted him to succeed,” Hooper says. “He broke down the class differences because his struggle was universal. It became a metaphor for the war effort. If the king could overcome his stammer, then plucky little Britain could overcome Nazi Germany.”

Similar discrepancies in status between royals and their subjects drive the tales in “Mrs. Brown” (1997), in which a rough-around-the-edges commoner befriends Queen Victoria, to the transformation of both, and “The Queen” (2006), a disquisition on the current monarch’s passive and conflicted reaction to the sudden death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

In the latter film, it is the down-to-earth advice of Prime Minister Tony Blair, the grandson of a shipyard worker, that finally persuades his monarch to empathize publicly with the nation’s grief.

“Will someone save these people from themselves?” asks an exasperated Blair, in an aside meant to convey not only his wonder at the royal family’s aloofness but his dismay at their inability to see the damage it causes.

In researching “The King’s Speech,” Hooper recalls watching an archival newsreel showing George VI delivering a written address at the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow in 1938.

In the clip, the clearly nervous king manages to get through his remarks, but they are halting and hesitant, and the newsreel’s editors — in an effort to fill the pauses — occasionally cut away to flags and to people in the crowd, who, significantly, appear to be highly supportive of their sovereign.

That speech, Hooper says, “became Colin’s most important tool” in portraying the king’s affliction. And, he adds, “it brought me to tears.”

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