The Second World War has continuously proved to be one of the most utilised period settings in contemporary cinema for the daunting fact that, across the six year battle, hundreds of powerful stories were created amidst unprecedented tragedy. We may complain about the endless barrage of WWII films, but the truth is we have barely scratched the surface to the multitude of powerful real life stories that have fallen by the wayside in favour of the bigger battles.
The King’s Choice; dir.: Erik Poppe; Norway 2016, 133 minutes. Our Rating: ★★★/5
The King’s Choice tells a story that is well-known in Norway, and central to the nation’s recount of the major events of the war. It threw the country’s monarchy into a morally problematic situation, with the outcome proving to define Norway’s war experience- but despite the ethical quandary, The King’s Choice manages to be crowd pleasing cinema that will engage international audiences unaware of this true story.
Director Erik Poppe’s film documents a few turbulent days for the Norwegian monarchy and government. Former Danish prince and first King of Norway Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen) is tasked with deciding whether to surrender the country to Nazi Germany following a coup d’etat, or resist their sudden governmental takeover. A surrender would guarantee the safety of the Norwegian people- but a resistance would only lead to further atrocities, even if it would guarantee the country’s sovereignty, and ensure they remain on the right side of history. On the other side of the power divide, Germany’s envoy to Norway Curt Bräuer (Karl Markovics) has been given direct orders from Hitler to make sure the King acquiesces to his demands- and he will sink to appearing pathetic to ensure he doesn’t fail to act on the Fuhrer’s commands.
Despite the sprawling ensemble cast, it is the two aforementioned performances from Christensen and Markovics which shine brightest. The film’s screenplay largely avoids showboating political speeches on the nature of good vs evil, which is what makes Christensen’s performance so compelling- he manages to sell the numerous leadership abilities of his characters without having to rely on a screenplay that favours awards baiting anti-Nazi speeches. Markovics, on the other hand, is compelling because he is so inept at his job, he is practically the comic relief- despite being the most prominent Nazi character within the narrative.
Poppe manages to make the film’s slim $7 million budget go a long way, directing epic air raid sequences and sweeping evacuation scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in a film with ten times the budget. However, when it comes to increasing the tension, he falters slightly; the depiction of the sequence of events feels like it stretches out for weeks- yet dramatically unfolded over the course of just a few days. He may nobly stick close to the facts, but the film never feels as tense as it should be, especially when the audience is fully aware that the characters are close to staring the destruction of war directly in the face. It introduces us to a story from WWII (largely unfamiliar outside of Scandinavia) on a suitably epic scale, but doesn’t translate the high stakes of the drama into the tense morality play it frequently threatens to become.
The King’s Choice is an important piece of World War II history translated into an effective drama- albeit one that doesn’t accurately portray the tension of the situation to the extent it deserves.