Friday, August 19, 2011

What Men Call Each Other -- Lionel and Bertie of The King's Speech.

Everyone is of course aware of this remarkable film which is a story of many things, perhaps the most remarkable being, how a movie that represents the quiet inward struggles of a man and climaxes with the giving of a speech can be so spellbindingly interesting.

I was expecting to be entertained by this movie, being both a fan of period dramas about British royalty and of Colin Firth. But I was not expecting to be on the edge of my seat with anticipation and rapt interest.  Nor was I expecting my movie companions, both my children, nor the entire rest of this country to be as captivated as I.

It is hard to write a post on this film because, while there is a great deal to appreciate, there is little that has not already been said. (Writing on an extremely well-canvased topic is a hardship I rarely get to experience.) But I think I can dispense with a summary of the plot, point and characters and just stick with what interests me most about the film: the male bonding. Of the many things the movie encompasses in its reach (overcoming obstacles, childhood mistreatment, the traumas of war, the stress of ruling, the indentured servitude that is royalty) there is nothing better than the first-rate male bonding going on here.

Colin Firth as King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as his speech therapist Lionel Logue have a tremendous amount of chemistry.  Their exchanges are hilarious and delivered with fabulous timing.
Logue: "I believe sucking smoke into your lungs will kill you."
Bertie:  "My physicians say it relaxes the throat."
Logue: "They're idiots."
Bertie: "They've all been knighted."
Logue: "Makes it official then."
The relationship between the man who is about to be king and his therapist, who becomes his only friend, is the heart of this story and comes to a climax just after the King makes his speech.

Throughout the movie, Logue has called the King "Bertie" in a very intentional attempt to bridge the great social and power distance between the two of them and to stand as equals. Logue has spent the movie insisting on collegiality, if not quite friendship, between them. "Bertie" does not reciprocate this address, preferring instead to address the doctor as "Logue." He has spent the movie trying to distance himself from any relationship with Logue, wanting only Logue's speech treatment, none of Logue himself.

Logue is relaxed with the idea of human contact and wishes to know this man who seeks his help. Not only does he wish to know him, he believes it is necessary to know him in order to help him. In the end, he is right. But Bertie is also right -- that he, as royalty, deserves respect and some deference. Eventually each man gets what he needs. After struggling to find a relationship and a place of comfort with each other, and after that position of closeness allows the King to succeed, Logue, in a lovely scene, congratulates the King, calling him "your majesty" for the first time.  Touched, Bertie reciprocates the gesture and thanks Logue by calling him "friend."

While watching this scene, my recent thoughts on another male bonding pair, Nicholas Higgins and John Thornton of North and South, came to mind. A similar "name calling"  incident happens near the climax of that film as well, to a pair of equally improbable men: Higgins the factory worker and Thornton the boss. After a sustained labor conflict between them throughout much of the movie that mellows into a slightly hostile working relationship, grudgingly giving way to respect and finally friendship -- Nicholas calls the boss "Thornton" instead of "master." And the viewer knows, by this naming, that an important step is made. Higgins has used a title of respect "master," all along to a man he not only didn't care about but felt ill will toward. By the end, he feels deep admiration and respect for that man, but, ironically, expresses it with "well, Thornton, I bid you good day." A smile and handshake show that this is not lost on Thornton.

What men call each other can provide a poignant glimpse into the subtleties of their rank, care, interest and familiarity. I think it is why it seems to be a key piece in the puzzle that is male bonding.

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