A picnic for Anglophiles, not to mention a prospective Oscar bonanza for the brothers Weinstein, The King’s Speech is a well-wrought, enjoyably amusing inspirational drama that successfully humanizes, even as it pokes fun at, the House of Windsor.
The story—shy young prince helped by irascible wizard to break an evil spell and lead his nation to glorious victory—is a good one. Directed by telefilm tyro Tom Hooper from veteran screenwriter David Seidler’s more-or-less-factual script, a cast of Anglo-Aussie stalwarts hit their marks with professional aplomb as Bertie Windsor (Colin Firth), the future George VI and father of England’s present queen, overcomes a crippling stammer and his natural priggishness thanks to the eccentric ministrations of unconventional, adorably déclassé, transplanted Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).
The tension between repressed Bertie, an unwilling sovereign, and irrepressible Lionel, a failed Shakespearean actor—or, better, between Firth’s controlled fury and Rush’s relaxed hamming—is played out in the moviemaking: Nostalgic for the old Miramax formula, The King’s Speech treats clipped British understatement with the percussive, mildly distortive wide-angle close-ups that characterized the hearty Australian comedies of the Strictly Ballroom era. The movie is not entirely irresistible, but it would be difficult not to empathize with Bertie’s painful plight, particularly in comparison to the glib bonhomie of his fellow royals: Michael Gambon as overbearing father, King George V; Helena Bonham Carter as solicitous helpmeet, the future Queen Mum; Guy Pearce as feckless elder brother Edward VIII, who abdicates the throne to marry American shady lady Wallis Simpson (Eve Best, a near ringer for the society vixen). The cast is rounded out by Derek Jacobi as the fusty Archbishop of Canterbury; and Timothy Spall who, vainly trying to upstage Rush, camps his way through the role of Winston Churchill.
At one point, George V complains that the new invention of radio has effectively transformed England’s royal family: “We’ve become actors!” The movie’s key historical fact is the mass-mediated merger of monarchy and showbiz—along with the emergence of the wireless as nationalism’s new tribal drum. There’s a sly moment when Bertie is wistfully transfixed by a motion-picture newsreel of the epoch’s most potent orator, Germany’s new chancellor, Herr Hitler. Now there’s a fellow who doesn’t hold back! (George Orwell was only one of many who believed that the hooplah inherent in a constitutional monarchy saved Britain from domestic fascism.)
Big historical events take a backseat as The King’s Speech puts its protagonist on the couch. A natural psychoanalyst, Lionel compels the prince to visit him daily in his ramshackle lower-middle-class lodgings and insists on first names. It’s Pygmalion in reverse, with Lionel playing a democratizing Henry Higgins to Bertie’s aristocratic Eliza Doolittle. He’s the shrink as demystifier. Therapist and patient bond over the old king’s death, with impertinent Lionel going so far as to suggest that bad parenting effectively tied Bertie’s tongue. A more elaborate Freudian explanation might link Bertie’s retentive-expulsive speech patterns to his unconscious equation of words with feces. In any case, Lionel trains Bertie to sing and dance and curse his way into a radio address, and, as in The Queen, if to less ironic effect, the monarchy is here preserved by a clever commoner.
The grand finale has the whole nation listening as invisible Lionel “conducts” the King’s declaration of war in ’39—hard-won eloquence discreetly goosed by Hooper’s use of gradually swelling background music. That’s the official Rocky moment, although the movie really finds its voice in those therapy sessions, when it bids to be a feature-length episode of In Treatment.
Even as the Brits were stirred by their new king’s newfound eloquence, a different national saga was holding Americans rapt. Published in the spring of 1939, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s novel of Depression hardship and Dust Bowl displacement, was still a bestseller when Fox rushed John Ford’s adaptation into production, with Henry Fonda as the heroic Okie Tom Joad.
Opening in January 1940, to some of the best notices ever garnered by a Hollywood movie and revived in a new 35mm print for a week at Film Forum, The Grapes of Wrath is more than a movie—or a novel, or the acme of Popular Front sentimentality. It’s a myth to which many have contributed. Just as artist Thomas Hart Benton gave the migrants a lusty vitality in the lithographs that illustrated the book’s deluxe edition, cinematographer Gregg Toland’s images paraphrased Farm Service Agency photographs to illuminate the Joad family’s Route 66 odyssey from Oklahoma to California. The 1990 Steppenwolf stage production distilled the novel into a series of tableaux—as did Woody Guthrie’s 17-verse “Tom Joad,” composed in a single night in April 1940. No less than Fonda, Guthrie derived iconic stature through association with Steinbeck’s novel—his New York breakthrough came when he appeared at a benefit “Grapes of Wrath Evening,” announced as a “real Dust Bowl refugee.”
Fonda’s performance is just about the only laconic thing in Ford’s movie—much of which was declaimed on studio soundstages. The opening scene is so stylized in its Midwestern landscape, you expect to see Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow among the cantankerous geezers and hyperactive salt-of-the-earth types. Oscar-winning Jane Darwell sits heavily on the role of Ma Joad; it’s crazy preacher John Carradine who steals the movie with his wide-eyed stare and masticated delivery.
Ford celebrates family values and emphasizes the innate goodness of the American people, or at least most of them. Tea Party types may reach for their coats the second time honest working folk are hornswoggled by exploitative entrepreneurs and be out the door even before the Joads stumble upon a federal campsite run by a miniature FDR and someone who introduces himself as “head of the Central Committee.” There’s no missing Fonda’s annoyed response to right-wing vigilante demagoguery (“What is these Reds anyway?” he wonders when somebody calls him one). Not even Ma’s celebrated curtain-closer (“We’ll go on forever, ’cause we’re the people”) can efface the hero’s philosophical assertion that we’re each “a little piece of a big soul.” Hard times, migrant workers, and homespun rhetoric notwithstanding, The Grapes of Wrath is itself a bit homeless—amazingly irrelevant to the present moment.