The King’s Choice was Norway’s entry for the Oscars given out earlier this year, and despite it not getting an official nomination, it is certainly one of the best political World War II films in some time. Recently we’ve been getting more films about the early war with Dunkirk and Darkest Hour also releasing this year. It is an interesting trend, focusing on the decision to fight more than the fight itself. Germany invaded Norway just a month before the evacuation at Dunkirk, when the march of Nazi evil seemed relentless across Europe.
The film is equal parts political and family drama, though not at all as bland and rote as the similarly titled Speech about George VI. King Haakron VII (Jesper Christensen, Casino Royale, The Debt) is a man just as concerned with being a good father and grandfather as he is with being a largely ceremonial monarch. The film opens with a longish text primer on 20th century Norwegian history (much needed for us ignorant Americans), explaining that Haakron is one of the few elected kings. His brother was the King of Denmark, and he was invited to become the King of Norway when they dissolved their union with Sweden in 1905. He is a kind soul, resolute in his belief in his country and countrymen, but also in democracy. This sense of duty drives the decisions he makes, and his steadfastness is key to Norway resisting the Germans for as long as it did, and never capitulated (like Denmark).
Christensen’s performance is as spirited and understated as one could hope for. His presence carries the film, and he manages to imbue the character with equal measures of strength, and love. There’s a moment where the royal family is fleeing from pursuing Germans and the King stops for a moment to give his grandson’s plush Piglet instructions to “take care of him.” And then he snaps right back into being the monarch. Wonder Woman would really dig this guy.
The primary relationship in the film is between Haakron and his son Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Kon-Tiki), the crown prince. While the elder man prefers a guiding hand, Olav is more brash and eager to use the small amount of power they have to push for a military response to the Germans. But while they disagree politically, theirs is a deep bond. We learn more about their relationship over the course of the film in ways that enrich both characters. Christiansen isn’t given quite as much to do, but his performance is also very effective.
The third major character in the film is Dr. Kurt Bräuer (Karl Markovics), a German diplomat tasked with negotiating the capitulation of Norway. Though the film doesn’t get into his personal politics, some may be uncomfortable with how sympathetic Bräuer is portrayed in the film. Yes, he has a Norwegian wife and child, and believes he is doing the right thing by trying to minimize bloodshed between the two countries, but he’s also a believer in his form of government. Mostly Bräuer is shown to be a bureaucrat caught between two governments, and despite the politics of the situation, Markovics’ performance as a sincere, yet driven man who is constantly anxious is more endearing than the character would be otherwise.
The film presents the story with a largely handheld camera, and director Erik Poppe manages to execute a documentary feel without drifting too far into cinema verite. It adds to the frantic feel of the film, as events are hurried along over the first few days of the German invasion. This choice is largely effective since attention is only drawn to it a handful of times over the course of the film, and it stays subtle in most scenes.
With the King on the run for much of the film, it evokes a sort of chess match. It isn’t that the King is Norway’s best military leader, but capturing him would almost certainly end the resistance to the Germans. And the king must try and stay on the board (within the boundaries of Norway) while constantly reevaluating his strategy. This is a war film but it is closer to that of a political thriller than an action film, and the craft captures that sense perfectly.
With the hereditary nature of the monarchy at the center of the film, The King’s Choice emphasizes the juxtaposition between the ages of the soldiers and that of those in political power. This theme is shown visually often within in the film in the editing cutting back and forth between soldiers and the political leaders, as well as alluded to in the dialogue of the characters. It isn’t exactly subtle, but the performances give it a gravitas that a lesser film could not achieve.
While history fans are likely to embrace The King’s Choice, there is plenty to offer for those who would not typically seek out a World War II film. Jesper Christensen’s performance alone makes this film worth seeking out, and will one that sticks with me for some time.
The King’s Choice opens at the Ritz Bourse theater today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.