When the deadly 6.3 magnitude earthquake happened in Christchurch in 2011, my husband and I were in a downtown cinema watching “The King’s Speech“. This film, which went on to win many accolades, including Best Picture and Best Actor, was the last thing I ever saw before the world tried to end.
Deeply engrossed in the death of the King George V, abdication of his successor for his twice divorced lover, and the stammering Duke who was choking on self doubt and fear; I did not think about the outside world. Throughout the film, Colin Firth‘s Bertie is angry, frustrated, and in need of a friend, whom he finds in Geoffrey Rush‘s speech therapist Lionel Logue. We are on the cusp of World War Two, the country needs a strong voice of reason and Bertie needs to sort his shit out. I am right there in the room with these two men, witnessing the growth of their friendship, watching them learn from one another. Ben, on the other hand, was sensing mild tremors and stuck his bottle of water in-between the seats ahead of him, to watch for tremors a la “Jurassic Park”.
With war imminent, and the royal role thrust upon Bertie, the pressures are mounting for him to address his country. And so, the story barrels towards the final address. The mood is tense, and the heartbeat of the film becomes a ticking clock. He heads towards the microphone with the same trepidation of facing death. In the small room, Lionel prepares Bertie for his speech. The room is soundproofed. The window is opened. The light will flash three times and then shut off. And then, there is silence. Everyone is holding their breath, he opens his mouth to speak. And then God shakes us as if we were an insignificant snow globe.
What I remember most about being in that movie, was that I was happy and relaxed. I was immersed in the story and then I was wrenched into a biblical kind of terror. Watching it now– the new King stumbling at first, but gathering nerve and confidence with each word–this is what I would have seen if the earth had remained still. It was like looking into a different dimension. What would have happened if we saw the happy ending the first time. I would have cried, and we would have walked out of the cinema, into the sunshine. We would have gone off to the places we meant to go afterwards, where buildings crumbled and bodies were crushed. Instead we were in England, in that small room with Bertie and Lionel, and we were safe there.
I’ve often wondered how that the film ended. Going over my notes about the earthquake, my curiosity for the ending was like a buzzing in the back of my brain. I borrowed it from my parents. And then we put it off. For a solid week. And then we let it happen, let them count down the precious seconds to the moment when the light dimmed and before a word was uttered. And then we heard his voice.
” In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you, as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself. For the second time in the lives of most of us, we are at war. Over and over again we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies. But it has been in vain. We have been forced into a conflict, for we are called to meet the challenge of a principle, which, if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilized order in the world. Such a principle, stripped of all disguise, is surely the mere primitive doctrine that might is right. For the sake of all that we ourselves hold dear, it is unthinkable that we should refuse to meet the challenge. It is to this high purpose that I now call my people at home, and my peoples across the seas, who will make our cause their own. I ask them to stand calm and firm and united in this time of trial. The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield. But we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to God. If one and all we keep resolutely faithful to it, then, with God’s help, we shall prevail”.
At least, this is what he said according to IMDB, because I was having a good old sob with the box of tissues on my lap. Ben had edged closer to me, and tried to condole me. “It’s okay, we’re okay”. Of course it’s okay, I don’t think “The King’s Speech” has the ability to cause earthquakes. It was about inching closer to the end, and recognizing that there was an identifiable moment, this cinematic line in the sand– that second before everything I knew was completely shaken.