It would make a good letter in Traces: “Father Carrón, for several years now I have worked in the family firm run by my father. I am the second-eldest son, and my older brother, David, has always been seen as next in line, especially by my father, who doesn’t seem to have much faith in me. To be fair, I have a serious handicap that holds me back in business. Without going into details, let’s just call this handicap fear. Because of this fear, I don’t inspire my co-workers, I don’t run a good meeting, I don’t even tell a good joke in business-social situations. Try as I might to overcome this fear, my own efforts simply are not enough. . . .
“I attend School of Community with Father Lionel. His friendship, and especially working with him and others through the chapter on sacrifice in Father Giussani’s book on charity, has been transformative for me. Brought up against my own limitations, confronted with my own harsh reality (the ever-present fear, the resulting sense of failure), I now understand that it is only by sacrificing, only by giving myself to Another that I can go beyond these limitations. As you yourself said in a recent School of Community:
“If one understands that without Him everything becomes really burdensome, then he starts to glimpse that the real solution to this temptation of ours to be autonomous is to abandon ourselves: we understand that abandoning ourselves suits us better: we don’t need a moralistic effort, but to let ourselves be embraced by Another. This is not a problem of effort, but of freedom, because to let ourselves be embraced we don’t need any special energy . . . We simply need to surrender. The true question is to understand that this is better for us, that not only is this not a sacrifice, but that this is the truth of who I am more than what I am able to accomplish. [Father Carrón’s School of Community for December 15]
“Father Carron, even my father is beginning to notice a change in me. . . ”
This is a roundabout way of introducing the new based-on-history film “The King’s Speech,” starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter. It struck me while watching the film yesterday that the relationship between the future King George VI of England (Firth) and the eccentric, uncredentialed therapist (Rush) he hired to rid him of a crippling stutter is an up-and-down journey much like that of any Christian approaching Jesus Christ. No, Lionel Logue, Rush’s Australian-born teacher, is not a “Christ figure”—although he does sometimes have the look of one of those gaunt, sad-eyed El Greco Christs. But he does represent that Other to which the Christian—prince, king, or pauper—must surrender in order truly to be free.
Stuttering proves to be a remarkably apt metaphor for facing one’s own spiritual limitations: The harder we “try,” the less we are able to get out of our own way. The Word dies literally on our lips. The film opens in 1925 with the future George VI, known to his family as Bertie, failing miserably to deliver a speech to a crowd at Wembley Stadium. (“We aren’t a family,” Bertie notes, ”we are a firm.”) During the ensuing decade—which preceded the death of Bertie’s father, George V (Michael Gambon), and the brief accession to the throne of his brother David, Prince of Wales, as Edward VIII (Guy Pearce)—Bertie’s wife, the future “Queen Mum” (Bonham Carter), cajoles him into speech therapy lessons with Logue and the two men pursue an on-again-off-again tutorial.
“The King’s Speech” is about this student-teacher relationship, a friendship as true as it is paradigm-breaking. Logue’s first condition is that Bertie address him as Lionel, not Dr. Logue, and that he allow Lionel, a commoner from Down Under, to address him, the Duke of York, as Bertie. In this initial proposal, and in Bertie’s reluctant acceptance of it, we see the first gesture of surrender. But Bertie is a strong-willed monarch-to-be under that fearful exterior, and the Old Man dies hard. Imagine “To Sir with Love”—complete with class bitterness, hilarious montages, and plenty of tears—set in the homes and gardens of The Royals and you won’t be far from the spirit of “The King’s Speech,” although you may underestimate its quality.
After seeing the film, I had a lengthy dinnertime discussion with my daughter, who is still annoyed at me for not appreciating the putative “Best Picture of 2010,” “The Social Network,” in quite the same way she did. She told me that I looked for a message in films where she often looks first for enjoyment. I acknowledged this personal failing of mine and tried to explain it. I said that both films, “Speech” and “Social,” show us a lonely man trapped within himself. In the Facebook film, that man is Mark Zuckerberg, the Harvard nerd who became a twelve-times-billionaire but is seen, sadly, at film’s end, trying to refresh the Facebook page of his ex-girlfriend, who dumped him because he is, in a word, a creep. To me the “message” of that final image is despair, which for a Christian is no message at all.
“The King’s Speech,” by contrast, provides a trajectory of salvation, the path one man walked out of himself toward something larger. No, King George VI does not embrace Christ in this film. The vicar of Our Lord is represented here by the Archbishop of Canterbury (Derek Jacobi), who is all but the villain of the piece, trying to pry Bertie free from Lionel’s mentorship. (In a smashing irony for anyone who loves the Thomas More biopic “A Man for All Seasons,” it was the Archbishop’s Church of England that stood in the way of Edward VIII’s marriage to Wallace Simpson on the grounds of her multiple divorces and so made way for George VI, father of the reigning Queen Elizabeth. The Church was not quite so strict with its first so-called Head, Henry VIII.)
But Bertie does embrace his destiny. The film ends with Hitler’s armies swarming the map of eastern Europe, and we are left with the understanding that if one man had not surrendered himself to the mentorship of another, then Britain itself, saddled with a monarch who literally could not speak, might have surrendered.
I think I made a point with my daughter near the end of dinner after we had spent about five minutes recalling the many moments in “The King’s Speech” that had brought us joy. I will not spoil the film by mentioning a single one. I asked my daughter how many moments of joy she could remember in “The Social Network.” She paused, then said, “Well, there were many moments that made me smile, but I can’t think of one that gave me joy.” In that statement, I think I heard a pretty good standard for separating the good film from the great.