While Montaigne has now reached the stage in his essays where he feels comfortable discussing death in successive works, I’m not there yet. So for today’s essay about how a life should be judged after death, I’m going to focus on mini-mortalities, endings, rather than finality. I’ll leave a more substantive discussion of death for tomorrow.
I feel free to make this switch because Montaigne’s ideas on this subject apply neatly to matters of completion. In fact, he uses a theatrical metaphor to make his central point:
happiness in life (depending as it does on the tranquillity and contentment of a spirit well-born and on the resolution and assurance of an ordered soul) may never be attributed to any man until we have seen him act out the last scene in his play, which is indubitably the hardest.
In this spirit, I’ll offer a review of 12 time Oscar nominee and Best Picture frontrunner “The King’s Speech,” which, yes, proves that I’m hopelessly far behind in my movie going habits since I saw it only yesterday.
It’s an interesting film, because while you might expect to see yet another Merchant-Ivory dignified production about British royalty, “The King’s Speech” is actually a boxing/wrestling movie as described in the Coen brothers film “Barton Fink.” True, there are no fights and the story isn’t about a down-and-out contender getting a last shot at redemption, while protecting the honor of an orphan or dame. But as a matter of structure, the film dovetails exactly with the conventions of boxing and wrestling pictures.
Instead of the broken down fighter with a heart of gold, we get a stammering royal with a heart of gold. Instead of a shy, lonely Adrian needing our hero’s love and protection, we get the lovable, aging British Empire, which is being threatened by a great global bully and in need of heroic leadership, or at least pretend leadership that doesn’t create embarrassment.
And so, like all films of the genre, an unorthodox trainer with a secret past becomes his guide and they follow a series of unorthodox, rather random steps, which you can’t be sure have anything to do with speech therapy. By the way, somewhere in the middle of the picture, the psychiatrist-movie genre intrudes with scenes reminiscent of “Ordinary People” or “The Prince of Tides.” No, the therapy doesn’t really lead to a great epiphany, which is a good thing, considering our trainer hero has no expertise in the field.
It turns out that he doesn’t have speech therapy education either, which wouldn’t mean anything in terms of plot other than an opportunity to make an obvious plot point about snobbery … except for the uncomfortable fact that the movie doesn’t demonstrate any expertise, conventional or unconventional, on the trainer’s part. I was actually hoping for a “Karate Kid” wax-on-wax-off scene so the random techniques he deploys could finally add up to something.
Ok, I’ll stop here for a Montaigne break, because my criticism is getting a bit snarky. Montaigne warns in his essay that those who reach great heights are always at risk of an eternal comeuppance. Given the unstoppable march to Oscar that “The King’s Speech” is on, criticism from those judging the hype, not the film, is inevitable:
just as storms and tempests seem to rage against the haughty arrogant height of our buildings, so it could seem that there are spirits above us, envious of any greatness here below.
I, of course, am not a spirit above, just a lowly essayist below. And as it turns out, I don’t intend to slam “The King’s Speech” for being overrated. Rather, I hope to praise it for so skillfully overcoming these obvious faults. Montaigne writes about how greatness can so quickly fall apart — bringing to mind the dizzying fall of Mubarak at an age when he would have been wise to retire on his own volition:
Fortune sometimes seems precisely to lie in ambush for the last day of a man’s life in order to display her power to topple in a moment what she had built up over the length of years
Montaigne continues that when the moment of judgment arrives, there’s no escaping the truth, everything stands open for the harshest possible interpretation:
in that last scene played between death and ourself there is no more feigning; we must speak straightforward words; we must show whatever is good and clean in the bottom of the pot
That’s the negative way to look at completion, as a matter of risk management. But there’s a more hopeful side to that coin. The fictionalized screenwriting guru Robert McKee states it well in Charlie Kaufman’s film “Adaptation” … “wow ‘em in the end and you have a hit.”
“The King’s Speech” delivers a rousing conclusion that ends with the trainer redeemed, the king esteemed and a nation reassured that it will survive the dark days ahead. There’s a subtext to this conclusion that speaks to our current political climate, that in difficult times what people need isn’t eloquence or even optimism, they need courage and reassurance that we will meet the challenges together.
Yes, I could continue to quibble about the film up to the closing credits, but that would be pointless. The reality is that the ending works, and therefore the movie works, shaggy portions and all. In my Montaigne paradigm of film criticism, “The King’s Speech” is far greater than the sum of its parts.