More people have asked me about The King’s Speech than any other this last year or two (that and Benjamin bloomin’ Button). Why do some people love it and some people hate it? We all know it is a successful film, but where lies the power in the story, and why does it polarise opinion to such an extreme? Here’s why:
The King’s Speech (2010) is a character drama, based on fact, with a story driven by the kind of subtext that audiences find most powerful: character growth and learning. If a character changes and learns and grows through his or her experiences through a story (or is offered the chance to change and grow but fails), these tend to be the stories that audiences rate most highly. Protagonist ‘Bertie’ takes such a journey of development, from a stuttering prince, lacking in confidence and dreading the idea that he might ever be required to take over the throne, to managing his speech impediment, becoming ‘his own man’, able to give speeches and strong enough to take on the responsibilities of monarchy with confidence and authority. The story’s major focus on character growth and learning leaves The King’s Speech well placed to become a classic. However...
...despite this massive positive, on the negative side, the story is low or skewed on most of the other forms of subtext that would be required for it to be extraordinary. There is, for example, a large bias towards revelation subtext over privilege (i.e., most storylines involve information being kept back from the audience and revealed at the end of the story event (revelation) rather than ‘privileged’ information being given to the audience and kept back from a character). Most great stories have a broad equality between these two fundamental forms, or a bias towards privilege if anything. The King’s Speech has a bias towards revelation, one or two examples of which would have been much more powerful in privilege and would have given the overall story more power and balance.
For example, the speech therapist, Logue, is not properly educated or qualified for the role he takes on. King George refers to him as ‘Doctor Logue’ and Logue does nothing to correct this misinformation. We in the audience also assume he is a doctor and qualified speech therapist, so when he is uncovered, the revelation comes for us at the same time as it does for The King. This subterfuge would have been far more powerful if the audience been given privileged knowledge that Logue was deceiving the king throughout, a continuous subtext would have been in place for a large proportion of the story, manifested in the form of a key question for the audience: ‘what will happen when The King finds out?’ This would also have introduced an element of antagonism to the key relationship, again a highly important factor that is largely missing. There is no out-and-out ‘bad guy’, and the main relationship is far too friendly and respectful to be as intriguing as it could so easily have been.
There is almost no subtext through subplot. What subplot there is - principally that surrounding the love life of Bertie’s brother, Edward, is not developed or used dramatically in itself (i.e., there is no effective storyline concerning the arc of Edward and Mrs Simpson), and therefore this subplot does not prove an effective facilitator for subtext in the main storyline. (It is effective in providing a key turning point - Edward`s relationship with Mrs Simpson was the reason ‘Bertie’ had to become king - but the opportunity this relationship offered was not used to its optimum in story terms.)
Other forms of subtext through, for example, dialogue, action, implication, promise, metaphor and question are not used to any great extent at all. The story lives and breathes only through the character growth and learning of Bertie.
Conflict and Antagonism is similarly narrow in depth and presence. Of the four types of conflict (internal, relationship, institutional, external), only one is genuinely deployed - internal conflict - the conflict between Bertie and his own internal daemons. This is clearly fine, and defines the story, but a little restrictive in a 2 hour film. There is very little relationship conflict, given the nature of the story - no out-and-out antagonist to speak of - and great opportunity is missed at the institutional level, given that we are talking about the Royal Family here, and the rules and regulations to which they are subject. There is also almost no external/coincidental conflict. It is extremely unusual for a successful story to have so little conflict beyond the main driver, and almost unheard of for there to be so little relationship conflict.
The King’s Speech is like the most boring boxer you’ve ever seen... but with the most amazing single punch. If he lands it, we have a spectacular knockout. If he doesn’t, it’s desperately dull. The King’s Speech manages to land a big enough punch to be a winner, and because that punch lands in the area of Character Growth and Learning, this is a film that will stand the test of time. It is also interesting to note that, because much of the revelation subtext turns to privilege on all but the first viewing of the film, this is a film that gets better with subsequent viewings.
If you are a writer reading this, make a note to self on just how important character growth and learning is to a story. All the greatest stories have it, and without it, The King’s Speech would be absolutely nowhere.
We have only really scratched the surface here in analysis terms. However, in the next year or two, as part of my PhD, I am going to have to undertake deep subtextual analysis of film stories like this and will publish the full documents here. Keep hanging out with me and I'll try to use this work to explain how Subtext totally defines the power, balance and grip of story!