Enacting Our Lives Bit by Bit Review of The King’s Speech
Maybe it's 2012 approaching. Maybe it's just a predictable reaction to unpredictable times. But the notion of destiny has begun to figure prominently in our popular entertainments. Just look at how Lost ended, with the battle against the "island's will" surrendered and the characters "moving on" after dealing with their personal demons. Current geek favorite Fringe is treading close to the same ground these days; protagonist-from-another-world Peter is grappling with the notion that, in the words of spectral Svengali William Bell, the more he runs away from the image of himself strapped into a universe-shattering machine, the faster he approaches exactly that moment.
In that setting, the complicated picture of historical contingency presented in Tom Hooper’s immensely popular (and Oscar-winning) The King’s Speech deserves some exploration. In one sense, the film is a familiar sort of triumphalism. The king of England is expected to speak on the radio to rally his people during wartime, yet he suffers from a debilitating stutter. We know how the story ends -- with England overcoming, its spirit unvanquished -- so we, the audience, represent fate. No matter what, the plot will move in our direction. The king cannot fail, both because the conventions of this type of middlebrow genre demand it and because we know from history that he did not, in fact, fail.
There are other markers of fatedness in the film, having to do with those very conventions. Naturally there is a quirky and (in an all-too-typical unrecognized irony endemic to movies like this) unconventional companion at hand to lead the king into his destiny. Of course king meets therapist, king loses therapist, king gets therapist back in a version of the familiar romantic conflict plot. All of this exactly matches audience expectations, further adding to the sense that the film’s events will roll out inexorably according to What Will Be.
Yet there are important countermovements that trouble this picture of historical destiny. For one thing, the conventions that the therapist is so fond of ignoring or tweaking are precisely those that are designed to ensure an orderly continuity of government and tradition. They are the forms of address, the trappings of coronation, the relationship between church and state, state and citizen that tell the people of England who they are and where they are going. It is no coincidence that the film takes place at precisely the moment when those comfortable verities are under attack from within and without. The film poses a question deeper than whether the king can overcome his personal challenges; it asks whether England can reinvent itself for the twentieth century and beyond. That story is not finished, as nations with centuries or millennia of tradition continue to struggle with their identity in a world of accelerating change. In this instance, yes, the king rose to the challenge not only of his impediment but of a new expectation of him and his government -- that they be available, accessible, intimate with the people they rule. It is clear nonetheless that this problem will recur with increasing urgency in the century that stands between the audience and the characters, and that its resolution is in many ways as far from us as it is from them.
The climactic scene -- really a montage -- in which the king delivers his radio address, haltingly and with the aid and support of his therapist in the isolation both speaks powerfully against the fatedness that tends to pervade such presentations. The stutter itself makes this statement. It is not that the king finds the personal strength to do what he has to do, by force of will wrestling the speech into submission. Technique, repeated and practiced and recalled in the moment, allows him to complete the act. The speech is a compendium of tricks, each one enabling a potential pitfall to be sidestepped. It is a performance, and like all performances on the stage, it is a tightrope walk between what must happen (because the writer has willed it) and what will happen (because the actors retain their own power of free will). Here the writer -- the force of fate -- finds himself unusually impotent; the actor’s limitations mean that there is no easy slide past the enactment of his vision. The actor -- the king, who must deliver the speech -- finds the realization of the moment completely dependent on his action. To bring it into being, the agent then breaks down the desired outcome into tiny acts, and finesses his way past them one by one.
The speech has suspense, then, in the way the movie as a whole cannot. And the speech’s strange granularity recalls the way process thought conceptualizes the suspense of history-making itself. In each moment we find ourselves with the task of building the next momentary future. Yet we are constrained, powerfully so, by the forces that led us here and the ones that demand of us a destined response. Popular culture remains fascinated by fate, by the notion that we are players on a stage larger and longer than ourselves, that the best and most we can do is to keep the action going so that the next scene can take place, that perhaps no matter how we try to subvert the author we find we have been outmaneuvered. Yet our experience is more like that of the king in front of the microphone: a task to do, a crippling fear we are not up to it, a series of free acts that determine what we enact. It comes as much from us as from our historical moment and its demands. It comes as much from us as from those who teach us the techniques we use to bring it to life. It comes as much from us as from the goal toward we (and others) aim that shape what must be done.
Our free response to our moments, bit by bit accumulating in our lives, are not strokes on a blank canvas. Yet for all they are contributions to a work we did not invent, they are our responsibility, our triumphs, our falling short. As we hold our breath to see into what world of war or peace, plenty or scarcity, connection or discord we will be asked to enact our lives next, we continue to create, moment by moment, freedom collectively taking the shape of fate.