Dir. Erik Poppe. Norway. 2016. 130 mins
This quality war drama unfolds over the course of three pivotal days in April 1940, when the future of Norway hung in the balance. At the centre of the story is the Norwegian royal family, headed by amiable man of the people King Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen). He is a hitherto ceremonial figurehead who suddenly finds himself thrust into the heart of a diplomatic emergency, as Adolf Hitler’s envoy presents him with an impossible ultimatum: surrender the country, or face the full might of a German military assault.
The film’s main asset is its disarming portrait of a king with a rare common touch
Although the main audience appetite for this story is likely to be within the domestic market – the film has already opened in Norway to healthy returns – and within neighbouring Scandinavian countries, the film’s inclusion on the Foreign-Language Oscar long-list should raise awareness in other territories. Distributors tapping into the existing market for fresh angles on solid war genre pictures, plus Christensen’s Quantum Of Solace name recognition, could expect modest to mid-level returns. An Oscar win, or at least selection into the final five Academy Award potentials, would boost The King’s Choice’s commercial potential commensurately.
The film’s main asset is its disarming portrait of a king with a rare common touch. Within the first 15 minutes, we have seen the noble statesman chatting with his grandson’s toy pig, engaged in a vigorous royal game of hide and seek, and lying curled in a foetal position on the floor of his chambers, exhausted from the sheer, mind-numbing tedium of being left on hold on a telephone call. Perhaps by virtue of the events of these fateful few days being viewed, largely, from within the prism of the royal family, the man we get to know first is a loving family man above all else, and only later a king. His man of the people status is further cemented by a lovely exchange with a teenage guard, Private Seeberg.
Formerly Prince Carl of Denmark, King Haakon VII was one of the few democratically elected monarchs – he ascended to the throne of Norway following the 1905 dissolution of Norway’s union with Sweden. The man who is so richly fleshed out by Christensen’s performance is a king who is aware both of the impotence of his largely ceremonial role, and of his responsibilities to the people who democratically voted for him as the country’s head of state.
Norway’s entrance into the Second World War is sudden and, given the country’s hard-bargained stance of neutrality, unexpected to many. Radio reports and tense telephone conversations reveal snippets of the mounting threat: German warships are massing in the fjords, the Norwegian government is paralysed by indecision.
Handheld camera captures the uncertainty of the situation in which the Royal family find themselves as they are forced to flee north from Oslo to avoid the advancing German forces. The nervy visuals are markedly more effective than a score which has a tendency to be a little on the nose. Period production design, meanwhile, is nicely judged. But despite a slightly unwieldy running time, it’s in the fine writing that the film finds most strength, particularly in the blistering climactic encounter between the King and the German envoy (Karl Markovics, impressive) in which Haakon VII is forced to make his choice.
Production company: Paradox Film 1 AS, Nordisk Film Production, Film Väst, Zentropa Sweden, Copenhagen Film Fund, Newgrange Pictures
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Producers: Finn Gjerdrum, Stein B. Kvae
Screenplay: Harald Rosenlow-Eeg, Jan Trygve Royneland
Cinematography: John Christian Rosenlund
Production design: Peter Bävman
Editor: Einar Egeland
Music: Johan Söderqvist
Main cast: Jesper Christensen, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Tuva Novotny, Karl Markovics, Katharina Schüttler, Juliane Köhler