It would be easy to dismiss the enormous commercial success of The Kings Speech as the result of an atavistic longing for a mythical age of deference to the natural order, now that the toffs are back in their rightful place lording it over the rest of us. The film itself may indeed be a reactionary and dishonest (if sumptuously filmed and tremendously acted) piece of shit but, in the immortal formulation of Charlie Brooker, sometimes it is necessary to analyse shit in order to find out what is wrong with the system that produced it.
Many such as ailing start-the-war campaigner Christopher Hitchens have ably exposed the many glaring historical inaccuracies in the film, but few have remarked on the fact that in it we briefly witness a kind of stunted mini-insurrection taking place. This is when the Australian failed-actor-turned-voice-coach who has been trying to help the uptight and often actually quite obnoxious wannabe monarch overcome his verbal impotence is preparing him for the moment when he will finally don the magic hat and take charge of all the pink bits on the map. As they rehearse in Westminster Abbey the colonial upstart, in an attempt to provoke Georgie into expressing himself fluently with the proper authority for the role he about to take on, parks himself on the throne. The gesture has its desired effect. Faced with such an outrageous assault on the very foundation of his supposed power, George responds in a similar way to Gaddafi over the last few weeks: he blows his top. ‘You-you can’t sit there!’ roars the about-to-be-king at the man he recently disparaged as nothing more than a failed actor and a colonial to boot. ‘Why not?!’ responds the usurper; ‘it’s only a chair’. But eventually, seemingly awed by the vehemence of the regal pretender’s tantrum, he graciously surrenders the throne.
This is the only moment in the film when the authority of the monarch is in any way challenged, other than by his own verbal craptitude. This seems to stem from doubts about his suitability for the role, especially in an age of mass democracy and mass media. Prior to the radio age the King was only known to his subjects in painted form, as a distant, semi-mythical figure somehow related to God. With the onset of mass broadcast media, power doesn’t really reside in these symbols but a command of the means of mass communication. The King is also, like his voice coach, a failed actor, but in the audition that he faces there is so much more at stake. The film’s drama comes from the King‘s struggle to accept that his authority lies in his mere public enunciation of that authority, and nothing more. He has, in the famous phrase of Lacan (‘A madman who believes himself to be a king is no more mad than a king who believes himself to be a king‘), to somehow make himself believe that he is the King, to embody the delusion.
Who is he fooling, in believing himself to be the rightful ruler of millions of people? In the film , his doubts about his authority, made manifest in his stammering, are his own. The scenes in which he stammers are presented in a tone of high seriousness and drama, not exploited for comic purposes a la the famous scene in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ in which the Roman general’s spluttering attempts to assert his authority are greeted with howls of derisive laughter. For all The King‘s terror of failure and public ridicule, the audiences we see greet his speeches with expectant, patient, deferent faces. They want and need him to demonstrate his belief in his authority in order to substantiate their own belief.
There is a clue here as to the reasons for the film’s enormous popularity. After all, those who have flocked to see it no more believe that George VI was annointed by God than they believe that the aging international playboy assistant arms dealer Prince Andrew is a direct descendant of King Arthur. As many have remarked, the Royal Family has long been a reality TV show, albeit one in which we have no chance whatsoever to vote out the less popular and more obnoxious members of the household. The film is a comforting fantasy; we know perfectly well that our rulers have no clothes, that they are merely acting as though power is theirs by right. We know that they are reading from a script, that all manner of manipulation – social, political, economic, mediatique – has been employed to make it appear that power is rightfully theirs. We know that the Georges and Gaddafis have no more natural right to rule over us than do the Etonians of the Bullingdon Club. But it is nevertheless comforting to believe and behave as though we did. The only other option is to assume the responsibility for what we know, draw conclusions and act accordingly; to accept the task of overthrowing those who claim to be greater than us and establishing our own democratic authority. Down with the King!