Of Swan Queens and Stammering Kings

Warning… Here there be Spoilers.

Oops- this has, (clearly) sat for a long time as a draft. Time to release it out into the world, I suppose…. but I’ll worry much much less about spoilers.

Last week I had the unusual pleasure of seeing not one, but TWO new release films in theatre! Black Swan on Tuesday and the King’s Speech on Thursday. Both were amazing- but I’m no reliable judge of amazing, having not been to see a film in theatre since I don’t even know when.

It was extra fun to see Black Swan with a former dancer with an interest in film-making, who could help make sense not only of the world of dance, but of the use of certain camera techniques (soooo much hand-held!). Turns out, there’s reasons in both worlds to put your protagonist in just one leg warmer.

But what I bring to a film is primarily an interest in story. And it seemed to me like both of these films were telling related stories- about power; and the claiming of it. Both Nina and Bertie find themselves in new positions- and despite having spent a lifetime in preparation for them, neither are comfortable claiming the power of their new roles. And fair enough! Both are roles that no one can rehearse or practice- the only way to become King, the only way to become the Prima Ballerina, is to step into the role as one is, and hope that one can grow enough to fill it with some grace.

Lots of things in life are like that, I think.

Both are being expected to embody something both more than, and less than human. Seduction. Allure. Restraint. Freedom. Resistance. Strength. Clearly- Bertie grows into his role more successfully than Nina does. And one has to wonder… why? What is different for him than for her? And of course, the difference in their pronouns is a part of it. Of course, when the story is about claiming power, we are far more familiar with stories of men’s power than of women’s. But that sort of analysis, while necessary, Isn’t what I want to do- it makes me sad and angry- and there are, I think, other interesting differences between the two.

And the difference that captures my interest is the nature of the communities and relationships in which Nina and Bertie both participate. Nina’s relationships are all fractured and fragmented. Whatever the hell is going on between her and her mother, a company of dancers all waiting for her to fail so they can vie for her role, a director that wants a principal who both oozes self-confidence, and yet responds with body and soul to his own whims. We see her toss out her stuffed animals and secure her bedroom door in an attempt to claim some vestige of adulthood. We see her sent (!) home to touch herself to claim some of her own sexual power. We see her being told to find herself by letting go… all in a context where in order to do any of these things, in order to claim any part of her own power as either a woman or a dancer, she is forced to violate the ground rules of one of the twisted relationships in her life. Even as Lily tries to bridge that chasm between “soloist” and “principal”, the underlying paranoia of the ballet world means that no matter what Lily intends, Nina is incapable of accepting any gesture as anything but plotting. Like Beth before her, she can only imagine that Lily wants her part. And Thomas’ answer, “every girl wants your part” only emphasizes the poisonous nature of life in the company– and returns us to the opening chatter, as the soloists attack Beth for having stayed around too long. It is, as Nina points out, sad. And it isn’t about to change just because the name on the programme does.

In Stark contrast, every time Bertie speaks we are shown a montage of his family and his subjects, holding their collective breath and desperately hoping for him to succeed. His Royal Highness is up there embodying something indefinable about the whole nation, and they all want him to do it well. His wife (as an aside: if that was an even remotely accurate portrayal of Elizabeth the Queen Consort, I have a whole new perspective on my grandmother’s Royalist attitudes. What an exquisite picture of charm and decorum, and etiquette placed, as it is intended, at the service of making others around her comfortable.) creates opportunities for him to ask for help in ways that he cannot do himself– but she forces nothing. He is, at every turn, the one who chooses to continue with speech therapy, or not. And of course, for Bertie, there is the central relationship in his story; the friend who relates not to the Prince or to the King… but to the Man. Lionel knows nothing of Kingship, but enough about fear, and something, too, about power.

Both Bertie and Nina are isolated by their new roles. She moves, in a heartbeat, from confidante to bitch. He is greeted by his own daughter with a solemn command to her sister that they should courtesy. For Bertie, that isolation is bridged by both Elizabeth and Lionel. Nina is left alone.

And both end their stories with a flawless performance. Even for someone like myself, who came to the theatre woefully ignorant of the history being placed on display, it was inevitable that Bertie would find his voice; would find a way to grow into his role as King. Nina, too, was flawless- but is destroyed in the process.

I wonder, then, what these stories say about the role of community, as members of it try on new roles, and attempt to grow into them. I wonder about whether the Church is, as it should be, a safe place to grow into something new, surrounded by those who care more about the person than the role. I wonder how to support not only young people, growing into adulthood- but also adults who are ready to grow in new directions- in trying new things where it is safe to fail. And safe, also, to succeed.

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