The King’s Choice

I saw “The King’s Speech” with two girlfriends last year, one of whom is a speech pathologist. The three of us liked the film very much. Last night I watched “The King’s Speech” again and enjoyed it even more than I did the first time. Marge, my mom, watched it with me and it was the second time for her, as well. Before the movie started, she told me that she’d really liked the movie, but was unhappy with the way they’d portrayed Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee for whom King Edward had abdicated the English throne in 1936. Marge had been 11 years old at the time.

The first time I saw the film, I’d been most struck by the intricacies of the interpersonal relationship that developed between the Duke of York, Edward’s brother who became King George VI, and the commoner who was his speech therapist, as well as the impact that the emerging wireless technology had on the public perception. This time I was rather more struck with the political aspect: Europe poised on the brink of a second world war less than two decades after the end of the first while her fearful, battered people looked to their leaders for strength.

Watching it with Marge, whose memories of the glamorous Wallis Simpson clearly colored her perceptions, gave me an interesting perspective on the story. As the U.S. struggled to recover from the Great Depression and England limped along economically and politically, the story of a Baltimore socialite and the king who chose her over his throne captured the imaginations of both British subjects and American citizens. This second viewing of “The King’s Speech” also helped me come to terms with the very different points of view held by each.

To Americans still smarting from the economic constraints of the Great Depression, Wallis exemplified the upward mobility they could only dream about. She was raised by a single mother and attended good schools with the help of more landed relations. While attending those good schools, she befriended a few daughters of Baltimore society and she bootstrapped those connections toward the top. First she married a Navy man, then a multinational businessman, while traveling the world on her chic style and sparkling wit. By the time she met the Prince of Wales, she was ready to move up to the next rung.

Edward, for his part, was a somewhat dissolute dandy, by most accounts, caught up in a style that had outlived the reality of the times. He was perceived as a Nazi sympathizer, but it is unclear whether this was the case or whether he was just ridiculously out of touch with the stresses facing the people he had been born to lead. Although he looked good and swaggered effectively, he was not cut out to be king. In fact, one conspiracy theory held that Wallis Simpson was an American spy whose mission was to ensnare the future king to ensure his abdication, but that seems a bit far-fetched even to me.

At least one new film and two new books about the enigmatic couple will be released in 2012. The woman who famously opined that one could “never be too rich or too thin” seems to have captured imaginations once again, more than three-quarters of a century after she first captured headlines on both sides of the pond. Interestingly, I read while researching the backstory of the abdication that Edward believed Wallis had made the greater sacrifice, and I don’t quite know what that means.

In the end, what I take away from my second viewing of “The King’s Speech” and my mother’s indignation is another opportunity to appreciate that what any story means depends entirely upon one’s point of view.