World War II appears to be an endless source of inspiration in cinema – from last year’s Dunkirk and Darkest Hour all the way to 1946’s multiple Award-winning The Best Years Of Our Lives. Battlefields are on especially high demand; they’re treasure chests of metaphors, privileged places from which to extract whichever theatrical or political significance one desires.
In The King’s Choice, we move away from death fields to witness three dramatic days in April 1940, when King Haakon VII of Norway (Jesper Christensen – Mr. White in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and SPECTRE), faced with a German ultimatum, must choose between surrender and death. Norway’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards, and having reached as far as the shortlist, Erik Poppe’s film was also honoured in the Panorama section of the 67th Berlin Film Festival.
“Nein, nein, nein!”
The director takes his (long…) time to let the audience settle in, and define where to focus his narrative. Once the tripartite division of the film is established, we are brought into location in time and space by black screens with locations, dates and times. In following the escape of the Norwegian royal family through a number of different homes, Poppe tries perhaps too early to make us feel compassion for characters that we don’t yet know. You don’t turn off the lights and suddenly go back in time by almost 80 years just like that.
King Haakon’s character is the centre of the film and the key element guiding the narrative. When we turn away from him, especially in battlefield scenes, everything seems to be collapsing, unnecessary and unfinished, as we alternate between scenes of war and the German envoy’s (Karl Markovics, The Grand Budapest Hotel) office, where he attempts to reach a peaceful resolution of the surrender.
“Sorry darling, no trip to Pontins this year…”
The King’s Choice seasons its audience for an hour, establishing its emotional terrain, before actually going for a truly dramatic scene. The director demands a certain consistency to understand the King, establish his tone and, after the first 60 minutes, finally presents us with what’s possibly the film’s most successful scene – the farewell of the royal family, in a beautifully sober and non-hysterical sequence. After this moment, everything seems more mature. In a blaze of tension, we stop in the middle of a road, in a snowy and dangerous landscape. Here, King Haanok takes a more introspective stance and reflects about being a father – in the monarchical and familiar sense – and his sincerity really shines through.
The script, which falls into the trap of generating unnecessary subplots, is nevertheless meticulously constructed. Poppe emphasises the composition of life cycles, with the recurrent presence and relevance of children, the dilemma between the king and his heir, and the double image of the king in a foetal position. There’s an intent to impose on us the fragility generated by fear, and the visual power of seeing of an old man as lost as a child.
“Why is it snowing in April? Damn weather!”
Jesper Christensen is, without a doubt, outstanding, without excesses or over-the-top acting. He paces himself – like the whole film – and doesn’t hold back from showing us his true nature right from the beginning – it’s us who got there late. Anders Baasmo Christiansen, playing the Crown Prince Olav, unfortunately takes a very different path, and is rushed and inconsistent. The contrast between the two almost makes us sigh in sheer desperation.
This is indeed a great production, rivalling those of Hollywood, but much slower and more thoughtful. Albeit making mistakes – which take away much of the reflectiveness it wishes to have – it’s certainly more relevant and undoubtedly a winner when compared with recent films of the same genre, such as The Imitation Game or The Book Thief.
“I’m just going to stand here and hope no one notices this hideous suit.”
The end is far too abrupt for such a slow-burner, but reveals a capable touch. The final scene, which surprises by its skill in staying true to the King’s character, makes it up to us for the way in which the script tries to provide dramaturgic filler. We’re constantly harassed by the impression that Poppe finds good ideas and immediately discards them, refusing to follow through with them.
Ultimately, The King’s Choice calls for perhaps too much patience, to a level that many won’t be willing to offer – with its unfinished ideas and acid dialogues – but it finds its salvation in its king’s character. There’s a remnant of soul, a beam of light, which is ultimately the reason to carry on watching until the end.
Dir: Erik Poppe
Scr: Harald Rosenløw-Eeg, Jan Trygve Røyneland
Cast: Jesper Christensen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Karl Markovics, Tuva Novotny, Katharina Schüttler
Prd: Finn Gjerdrum, Stein B. Kvae
DOP: John Christian Rosenlund
Music: Johan Söderqvist
Runtime: 131 minutes
The King’s Choice is available on DVD now.