Welcome to the first review in our coverage from Edinburgh International Film Festival 2017! We’ve picked out the best historical biopics and period dramas from the schedule, so look out for more reviews in the next week.
Wherever your education, chances are that your history lessons on large world events stayed largely rooted in the actions of your own country. We witness past wars from the side of whoever our ancestors fought for, and understand our own pocket of history whilst staying largely blind to the detail of stories further afield. It’s a practical choice of course – no teacher has time to take their class through a huge number of perspectives – but it makes for some surprising findings later in life.
Norwegian film The King’s Choice, or Kongens nei in its original language, is a perfect example of that. Watching a biopic on the way in which Norway got pushed into World War II, and the remarkable actions that shaped the country’s narrative during those years, is an excellent exercise for an audience unfamiliar to the histories of the Scandinavian countries. Directed by Erik Poppe, it manages to balance a familiarity with the historical figures for viewers in Norway – notably through beginning with real footage of the historical characters portrayed in the film – with a gentle introduction and focus on character development for those less familiar audiences.
The story is spread over just three days in April 1940, when German warships invaded the shores of Oslo. One quick decision by panicked soldiers causes complete destruction to one of the warships, and in the same day, Adolf Hitler begins using this incident as tangible validation to take Norway through intimidation and forceful negotiations. As ceremonial leader of a sovereign democracy, King Haakon VII of Norway becomes our key focus as he deals with being stuck in the difficult position of balancing his own personal fears and that of his family, as well the obligation to go along with the decisions of his cabinet in government.
Taking on the pivotal role of King Haakon is Jesper Christensen, most familiar to audiences in the US and UK as the background villain of the last four James Bond films, Mr White. He’s phenomenal, capturing the dignity of the elderly monarch with eyes that have seen enough pain and fear for a lifetime. The king suffers from back pain in his old age, and Christensen treats us to a masterclass in physical acting as he unravels the sovereign from a curled up ball of agony in private, to the rigidly upright stance of determined dignity in public.
Some of the best scenes come in the confrontations and disagreements between the king and his son, Crown Prince Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), who provides a strong contrast to his father by being outspoken about the actions of the government. Irritated by their willingness to consider negotiations and submission to the German forces, Olav wrestles against a role that should give him power, but actually removes any ability to have an outward opinion. His father meanwhile, is well aware of the repercussions that can come from a monarch fighting against the choices of democratically appointed officials.
In other words, this film couldn’t be more topical. Through the eyes of a different monarch, The Crown recently looked at this very peculiar central conflict of the role that only one person can truly take on. We’ve seen it come to life again in recent years, with the publication of Prince Charles’ ‘spider memos’ to parliament and in the recent conflicts over forming a new government through the ceremonial Queen’s Speech. The Queen, like King Haakon, knows she cannot refuse anything, understanding the difficult nature of where the limits in the role lie.
As an interesting aside, lead actor Christensen was actually offered an official honour from the Danish royal family in 2006, but declined it stating that the idea of the monarchy is a crime against the members of the family themselves. No doubt this long held opinion played some part in his heartfelt portrayal of the trapped king.
The King’s Choice has been on the festival and awards circuit for a little while now, but not yet seen by a widespread international audience. That’s a shame, as this is an ambitious piece of filmmaking and an excellent demonstration of an effective historical biopic. The actors give it their all, and Christensen is truly remarkable. If you can find it anywhere near you, put aside some time to witness another perspective on the Second World War and enjoy a sensitive meditation of the simultaneous power and helplessness of monarchy.