Tom Hooper’s extraordinary film, The King’s Speech, draws its power and affect from its subtlety. Hooper uses many small and understated scenes, which on their own don’t broadcast a message, but when combined with the natural empathy of the viewer, on which the director heavily relies, carry home the power of the story.
One such scene shows the Duke of York (played brilliantly by Colin Firth) meeting his young daughters, Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth, for the first time after he reluctantly becomes king. Nothing overt is said to this effect, but the viewer knows that the new king longs for some experience of his normal life, after the heavy crown becomes his. He stands there waiting for his daughters to hug their “Pa Pa”; instead, they curtsy and call him “Your Royal Majesty”. Hooper does not show us a long shot of the crestfallen father. Apparently unique among film directors, he does not seem to think his job is to teach us how to think and feel, but rather to tell us a story rich in its humanity.
This scene recalls an earlier one in the film, which is the first time we see the Duke interacting with his daughters. Dressed in black tie, he tells them an absurd, amusing story about a man turned into a penguin, whose greatest sadness is the consequent inability to hug his beloved daughters. After the story, the Duke lovingly hugs his girls before sending them off to bed.
In acquiring the crown, the Duke now resembles that accursed penguin. This scene made me think a bit about how our professional responsibilities, and the demands leadership makes upon us, impact the relationships we have with our families. We of course never become monarchs, above all other mortals, including our children. But we are asked to find a balance between our work lives and our family time. We do spend most of our time each day as “Managing Director”, “Executive Chairman”, or “Founder and CEO”, and a much smaller part of the day as “Mom” or “Dad”. Each time we choose the shortest bedtime story, or sing one less verse of a bedtime song, because we’ve got more work to do that evening, we’ve titled the balance. In doing so, we become part penguin.