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THE KING’S CHOICE (2016) review

September 30, 2017

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written by: Harald Rosenløw-Eeg and Jan Trygve Røyneland
produced by: Finn Gjerdrum and Stein B. Kvae
directed by: Erik Poppe
rated: unrated
runtime: 133 in.
U.S. release date: August 22, 2017 & September 29, 2017

 

There’s been a slew of biographical World War II films lately telling “little known” stories. From last year’s procedural “The People vs. Fritz Bauer” to this year’s “Alone in Berlin” and “13 Minutes”, all three of suspenseful tales focusing on German overthrow from within. There was also “The Exception” this year, which saw a German soldier snooping around Dutch resistance in search of a spy. The suspenseful Norwegian-Irish production “The King’s Choice” is another such film, a fascinating slow-burner that has a specific focus and a surprising nuanced approach to characterization. This, coupled with a notable build-up of tension throughout the film, makes director Erik Poppe’s film a compelling viewing experience.  

The story takes place over the course of three days in April 1940, when an invasion of Norway by Nazi Germany is imminent, a location known for its neutrality.  As the film opens, we observe King Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen, “Casino Royale”) spending time with his grandchildren as they play in the snow. Then we’re taken to the coast of Oslo, as we watch Norwegian military nervously and studiously monitor the coastline as word that German warships will be arriving soon. We later learn that the Germans explain their Norwegian arrival as a way to protect Norway from British interference. But we know better and so do Norwegian officials, especially the King and his anxious son, Crown Prince Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen, “Kon-Tiki”), who are both aware of Hitler’s domination plans, as well as the rich resources and advantage their country could provide the Nazis.

 

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When the call has to be made to fire on that German warship in their harbor, the Norwegians know this is the real deal. It’s a palpably tense build-up as we see a lone searchlight from a lighthouse scan the coastline for the looming vessel in the early morning hours. Nerves of the Norwegian soldiers are understandably rattled. We see one young soldier bend over to hurl vomit. When that first German ship is sink, it’s not without a fight.

It’s definitely an effective, nerve-racking sequence, that in some ways resembles the uncertain anticipation of “Dunkirk”. Christopher Nolan’s film from a  couple months back certainly came to mind while noticing the tick-tock sound that composer Johan Söderqvist (“Let the Right One In” and “Kon-Tiki”) incorporates into the rising tension. It’s like a musical rapid heart beat. In some ways, the two films are alike – both stories portray a foreboding dread, yet “The King’s Choice” is more concerned with getting us immediately acquainted with who this Royal Family is and provide us with an understand of their predicament and especially the pressure the King is under.

Before a single line is uttered, Poppe provides us with a silent montage that briefs the non-Norwegian viewers watching on the country’s history and how a young Danish prince was crowned King Haakon IV after being invited to become the ceremonial head of state. This was after Norway broke away from Sweden in 1905, establishing its independence and eventually voted for a constitutional monarchy. Fast forward thirty-five years and we see the toll such a position has taken on the gaunt and fragile King, now a widower. He is present and active for his family, especially his grandkids, but you can see how the years of making decisions for an entire people has worn him down. It’s also taught him to weight out the cost of his decisions carefully, something his impatient son cannot understand. Olav doesn’t understand why the his father is biding his time and not attacking. But that’s because the King knows his decisions could save or destroy lives.

Rather than acceding to Germany, maybe such a refusal will buy them time for a better solution, but it’s invasion is all but inevitable. At least it will allow time for the women and children of the Royal Family to make a harrowing escape to Sweden. Sure, this is a WWII film, but what stands out is how it is essentially a story of a patriarch, leader of a family and a country that believes in him, and his struggles to make the right choice.

 

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Screenwriters Harald Rosenløw-Eeg and Jan Trygve Rhineland have weaved a fascinating story that humanizes authority in the face of peril. There’s even one particular German character who’s more complicated than we initially perceive (or expect) him to be. Curt Bräuer (Karl Markovics, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), the only prominent German character, is an envoy who wants to provide negotiations between Germany and Norway, in order to transition power with minimal losses, a goal that’s incomprehensible from a Nazi point of view. One specific scene that stands out is when the envoy surprisingly finds himself on the phone with Der Fuhrer, who proceeds to tell him to get the king’s agreement or else.

Towards the film second half, we get in to the thick of not he ground peril for the Royal Family as German soldiers occupy a small outpost. This is where we see a melee between opposing sides and also where we meet the young Norwegian soldier (Arthur Hakalahti) is awestruck by the presence of King Haakon IV. It becomes obvious that the young soldiers fate is sealed.

“The King’s Choice” is kind of lengthy, yet is no less gripping and quite well-acted. Of the recent historical dramas, Poppe (“1,000 Times, Good Night”) has crafted a legitimately compelling and handsomely rendered period film. That has much to do with the involvement of cinematographer John Christian and the detailed production design of Peter Bavman. It’s no surprise that the film has already been a critical and commercial success in Norway, undoubtedly because it retrieves a stirring piece of Norwegian history.

Norway’s involvement in the war isn’t well known, except perhaps for the betrayal of the traitorous Quisling, who cooperated with the Nazis in their bid to seize control of the country.  In “The King’s Choice”, Quisling is an offscreen character, whose story is worthy of his own film. Here, the titular character is sufficiently engaging and the one who has the most at risk.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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