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From 'The King's Speech' to 'The Queen': The Role of the Monarchy in Modern Times

5 May, 2011 By: John Latchem

The recent wedding of William and Kate stirred up a fresh wave of discussions about the relevance of the British monarchy in a democratized world. As royals come and royals go, people remain fascinated by their lives and continuing celebrity status, while raising an eyebrow at the notion that Queen Elizabeth II technically is the head of state for 16 different countries.

To paraphrase an old truism, traditions are hard to shake.

That’s why I think films and TV shows about the royals are so fascinating to people, as they attempt to display the paradoxical lifestyle of the rulers who don’t really rule. A couple of recent films I think capture this attitude while portraying the monarchy’s response to the demands of a modern world are The King’s Speech (available from Anchor Bay) and The Queen (available from Miramax), a double feature I expect to find playing in many a history class in the near future.

At the center of The King’s Speech are two aspects of the monarchy’s relationship to the people. First and foremost is Bertie the stammerer (Colin Firth), the man who would be King George VI. As his father eloquently explains to him (and thus relates to the audience the theme of the film), the advent of radio (and later television) has made actors of the royal family. While they may hold no real power, they still perform a ceremonial function as the center of their nation’s morale, and thus have an obligation to at least meet some standard of appropriate public behavior, if not be outright exceptional. (There’s a great line in Back to the Future that echoes this notion as well, about how it’s appropriate that Ronald Reagan is president in the future because he’s an actor and thus has to look good on television).

The other issue at play here is how Bertie became king, when his brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), abdicates the throne in 1936 to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson, causing quite a scandal at the time. The controversy stems from an amazing notion that the ministers of the British government actually would resign over a dispute about who the king would choose to marry. (By tradition, the British monarch must grant permission for new prime ministers to establish a government, and are bound by the law to oblige.)

This is why I think Pearce really is one of the unsung stars of The King’s Speech, having received almost no press for what is a pivotal role. The part needed a name star with enough of a presence to be a king and compelling enough to convince as a romantic who would give up his power for love. (Part of me wishes Tom Hooper would make an “Edward & Wallis” movie with the same actors to serve as a companion piece.)

But it comes back to the notion that people are defined by their heritage. In this case, the king’s role is as head of the Church of England. To disregard those ideals would be to set a disastrous example for the people. There’s a lot to be said about using the institutions of society to maintain contentment within a populace, especially in a time of war. With Hitler on the rise and World War II on the horizon, the people of Britain needed the steady strength of their king to guide them through.

That’s a tremendous burden to place on someone who isn’t prepared for or interested in the challenge. Part of the subtext of The King’s Speech is how Bertie pushes back against the notion that he must become king even though it is quite obvious to everyone that burden soon will be thrust upon him. (His father, George V, prophetically predicted that Edward VIII’s carefree ways would cause his reign to peter out within 12 months). This gives rise to the true message of the film, a message of overcome personal demons so that you may offer something of yourself to others.

The king, after all, is just a man, subject to the same foibles as the rest of us. But also burdened with duties they did not choose, and nobility they did not earn but through virtue of their birth. George VI understands the reins of destiny and could just as easily choose to unburden himself of those shackles, as his brother did. But he understands his calling to be more important than his own selfish whims.

Bertie’s sudden rise leads to what I think is the most poignant scene in the film, as the newly crowned George VI returns from his accession council and finds his family preparing to move into the palace. His young daughter looks at him with such pride, but also a glint of recognition of her own future as queen (really, the girl they got to play this part is quite good). George VI returns her gaze with a tinge of regret and gives her a kiss on the head as if to apologize for the destiny that through him has now been thrust on her. (Elizabeth II is, of course, just a few years from becoming the longest-reigning British monarch ever.) This scene I think gives The King’s Speech a nice resonance with The Queen, set 61 years later with that little girl all grown up and having settled into a comfortable reign.

The Queen gives us the other side of the notion of a figurehead’s duty. Princess Diana has died, and the queen seems to refuse to publicly mourn, causing outrage. The question is raised of whether British society has outlived the need for figureheads and whether the monarchy should be abolished. New prime minister Tony Blair, whose liberal politics left little room for a monarchy, steps in to rehabilitate the queen’s public image and in a very real way mend the fractured relationship between her and a people who deep down really do love what she represents to their country.

People like tradition and continuity to the past, a connection that gives them pride and strength. (America certainly is not immune to this sensibility, given how much importance we place on the presidential line.)

But it cannot be denied that times have changed since the days of George VI, and the controversy that Edward VIII stirred up certainly would have a different flair today. Just witness the relatively minor ripples cause by Prince Charles’ attempts to remarry.

So while the nature of the monarchy undoubtedly will have changed by the time Prince William becomes king, it’s hard to imagine that it won’t still be one of the proud institutions of British history, in whatever form it takes by then. And if it isn’t, well, I’m sure they’ll make a movie about it.

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