It has become a well known and rather sarcastic in joke that if your film is about disability then you’re a shoe-in for an Oscar. Just look at past winners; Million Dollar Baby, A Beautiful Mind; and that’s just in the last ten years. 2011’s winner was no different.
It was, of course, the British historical drama The King’s Speech, which garnered four Oscars at the 83rd Academy Awards. From the perspective of a disabled person this long list of impaired winners should be a triumph, putting disability in the foreground in such a popular fashion and yet one can’t help but feel patronised.
I greatly enjoyed the King’s Speech. I thought it was interesting and moving and Firth’s portrayal of King George VI was excellent. I can’t help but notice however that it is yet another movie about the struggle of an impaired person to “overcome” their disability. The fact that this time round it just happens to be HRH Albert George Windsor seems almost inconsequential.
The compassionate nature of Firth’s on screen wife, Queen Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), to ascertain the right kind of help for her husband is admirable, and the relationship that develops between HRH and eccentric therapist Lionel Louge (Geoffrey Rush) is so touching it gave me chills in the theatre. Yet these relationships somehow mask the key issue: Unfortunately, the King is little more than another Forrest Gump just imbued with that rather stiff British sensibility rather than melodramatic Hollywood sensitivity.
Bertie begins as a strong willed Prince, loyal to his father, his country and his duty. However upon his brothers’ abdication he is forced into a role that many feel he is unfit for: King. In spite of his moral strength his ability to lead is undercut by his impairment, disconcertingly largely by himself. Bertie is stubborn and bitter towards those who try to help him stop stammering, largely because of what appears to be simple pig-headedness.
Personally I suspect if I’d been forced to go through a litany of speech therapists, all of whom had been entirely unhelpful, let alone condescending, I’d be a bit short with the next one that rolls around. Bertie’s behaviour toward Louge is initially nothing more than sarcastic. His personal attacks upon Louge do little to boost the King’s likeability. It is as though his personality is secondary to the effect his impairment has had upon his life, evidenced by his ambivalence toward treatment.
Furthermore, it is the previously tumultuous relationship with Louge that eventually leads to Bertie’s infamous 1939 Declaration of War speech. The burgeoning friendship between these two men suggests that all HRH ever really needed was someone to both empathize with him – making him out to seem weak and troubled – and break his royal stubbornness.
By doing this the film removes one of the key aspects of the characters personality, like a horse being broken in, he is now allowed to lead the country into one of the worst wars it has yet seen, as another strong and brave figurehead. Is this ending suggesting he couldn’t have achieved that before?
So, should we be quite so proud of this British victory? Yes it’s great for the UK Film Industry and Colin Firth does seem like a thoroughly nice bloke, but as I sat there watching the credits roll I couldn’t help but notice that once again I have found myself witnessing the same old stereotypical resolution for a disabled character.