Britain blushes at Firth’s stiff upper lip

Any time I want to understand the scale of a social phenomenon I rely on Google. That is how I realised that patriotism is a solely American feeling. Google patriotic, search for images and you’ll be flooded with 19 pages of stars and stripes, from those tattooed on some blonde’s curves up to those painted on a flea collar. The US takes it to the next level: it uses its colours as a logo, puts the logo onto the market, and sees its brand grow in value.

Things get complicated if you add UK alongside patriotic. British patriotism (the virtual version) is rather eclectic and includes such remarkable figures as James Bond (Daniel Craig), Joseph Blatter (for his latest World Cup scandal), John Terry and a random, half naked and presumably alcoholic man with his chest hair shaved in the fashion of St George’s flag.

Now, if to epitomise Britain’s national identity Google chooses, in strict order of appearance, a world’s icon, the FIFA CEO, a football player and a putative alcoholic, we should not care less. If the US had a decent football team (or a man of the ethical stature of James Bond), then perhaps they would be replacing the handful of fundamentalist grannies with some other inspiring characters. But this is not the point. A few weeks back the King’s Speech entered the international stage. For the majority this was the occasion to watch Colin Firth starring as King George VI in a performance that will probably grant him his first Oscar. On a wider scale, the chance was for the public to snoop into a social ecosystem which the UK has only shyly started revealing after 2006’s triumph of The Queen.

If for the outside world King George’s stammering was a further reassurance of the blue
blood’s mortality, what does the movie mean for the British public?

The temptation to reduce Hooper’s movie to an anglicised analogy of Forrest Gump is strong. Thankfully Firth does not have to add a brain deficiency to his stammering, but at the same time he must (like Hanks) bear the burden of a country which now more than ever feels the need to be represented in a happy-ending tale.

The analogy holds up to a point. Forrest Gump is at best the symbol of a lost generation (Vietnam’s), while Firth is no less than a King. So why the roaring success?

The entire British press has already given a few answers. Hooper plays with the idea of satisfying on the one hand Britons’ everlasting refusal of fascism, on the other the dreams of past global dominance. Thus the audience can go back home happy having enjoyed 111 minutes of state propaganda and self-adulation. In this sense (like for the US), the UK-brand works fine.

Everyone seems to agree that the King’s Speech is a lesson for Britain’s ruling class, both for Cameron, who must justify his austerity plan, and for Miliband, who is yet to decipher the aftermath of Labour’s hierarchical revolution. Hooper has humanised King George and has given Britons an idealised version of the determined leader who rolls up his sleeves, fights his impediment and takes the nation’s fate onto his shoulders. Given the King we are presented with here, why not resort to today’s monarchy as the solution to all problems?

The thing is, we like George VI when he stands up to his brother’s bullying, when he impeccably shouts “bloody-fuck-shit,” when he refers to his speech doctor as “my friend”. But this is, interestingly, the version of George VI which is the one farthest from that of his institutional role. Colin Firth does not upset British republicans because the feeling of monarchy is left lingering above the stage but never frantically enters it until the grand finale.

The lesson to be learned must not therefore be that of appealing to today’s monarchy, because Hooper did not make us love George VI but his more fragile alter-ego, Bertie.

The job for Cameron and Miliband’s is much more complex. They must find a new way to restore the nation’s faith in their workings, and this must be done by appealing to a party-free symbol which would not lead to social divisions such as those rising between Republicans and Monarchists.

What’s more, they must do this soon. As for what concerns us, rather than lamenting a patriotic apathy or criticising Hooper’s underlying monarchical message, perhaps we should start off by asking why one of the few ways to feel a slight, nostalgic sense of pride is granted by a £5.50 (student discount) ticket.

Until new superheroes or new Messiahs walk up the stage, Colin Firth will do.


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