Why I'm glad The King's Speech won...
…even though I liked True Grit better.
Last night at the Academy Awards, my favorite film of 2010, True Grit, went 0 for 10, winning none of the impressive lineup of nominations it had garnered including best picture, director, actor, supporting actress and adapted screenplay. (Read full Oscar coverage.)
Ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, nominated eight times before without winning, lost a ninth nomination, this time to Wally Pfister for Inception. And for my money 13-year-old Hailee Steinfeld deserved the supporting actress award for her uncanny poise and self-assurance and her ability to hold the screen against Jeff Bridge and Matt Damon—all while effortlessly wrapping her mouth around the screenplay’s archaic language. (By the time Melissa Leo got through her rambling, cringe-inducing acceptance speech, with its bleeped f-bomb, I suspect some Academy members regretted not voting for Steinfeld.)
And yet, I’m glad that the evening’s big winner was The King’s Speech. Although not necessarily a better film than True Grit, it’s a very good film of a kind that we desperately need, and one in desperately short supply in mainstream cinema: a good, wholesome film about good, wholesome people. The wholesomeness of these characters and their milieu is something lacking in many of the year’s best films, including Inception, The Social Network, Winter’s Bone and even True Grit.
Films about unwholesome people and situations can still be very good and worthwhile films. They can be cautionary; they can challenge us with our own capacity for evil; they can raise awareness regarding injustice and oppression; they can inspire hope for redemption. “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil,” John Paul II wrote in his 1999 Letter to Artists, “artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”
Against this, some pious souls glibly cite Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
It would be easy—potentially too easy, and just as glib—to offer a biblical rebuttal based on examples of disturbing and unwholesome episodes from Old Testament history. St. Paul’s advice in Philippians 4 doesn’t mean that we must never contemplate the depths of evil or the darker aspects of the human condition, but neither is it an empty platitude that means nothing.
Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke wisdom when he said, “We become what we think about all day long.” This is an occupational hazard for those whose vocations oblige them to deal with darker corners of human experience: police investigators, criminal attorneys, divorce lawyers and marriage tribunal officials, clinical social workers, exorcists. It can be a hazard for film critics too, as well as ordinary moviegoers.
Even when films are praiseworthy—and they often aren’t—disturbing subject matter, over time, can become corrosive to the soul. Occasional disturbing content in an R-rated movie may be a problem for some and not for others; a steady diet of disturbing films about unwholesome people in unwholesome worlds isn’t good for anyone’s soul.
The point here is not a litmus test or checklist of good or bad content. The point is where we live inside, what we fill our lives with, what we habitually frequent, what are the staples of our diet. The images and themes, the activities, the ideas that we surround ourselves with are eventually woven into the fabric of our lives and the shape of our souls.
St. Paul’s exhortation to think about the good, the true and the beautiful is sure guidance on the path that leads to life—if not necessarily in a literal way in each and every step, certainly in the whole. We should keep our eye toward the good, the true and the beautiful. Ugliness in moderation may be part of a search for the good, the true and the beautiful, but ugliness shouldn’t fill our lives.
We need movies like The King’s Speech—good, wholesome movies about good, wholesome people. I’m aware of the historical caveats that have been raised about this film, and they’re well taken. It may be true that precisely what I admire and value about The King’s Speech is significantly fiction, and the historical reality is more complex and sordid. It might even be that a more historically accurate film would be a dramatically compelling film.
A more dramatically compelling film—but a better one? That depends on your criteria. We need good history, but we also need good stories, including good stories about good people. The King’s Speech may have limitations as history, but I value it precisely for its virtues as story, and as a story of virtue.