Dir: Mike Barker.UK. 2003. 105mins.
An ambitious, solidly executed period drama, To Kill A King represents a daunting marketing challenge. Charting the close personal friendship and bitter ideological differences between Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax in 17th-century England, it is a history lesson propelled by ideas rather than action. A sober, serious-minded tale in which revolution and evolution fight for intellectual supremacy, it unfolds in gloomy debating chambers and draughty castles rather than the mud-spattered fields of battle. Lacking the rousing epic sweep of a Braveheart or the tight focus and bravura performances of Elizabeth, it will struggle to make a significant connection with mainstream viewers. History buffs, upscale audiences and those attracted by the strong British cast should provide a decent market for its UK release on May 16. Overseas, the lure of little known events from British history means it will be a sophisticated specialist item rather than a surefire draw.
First known as Cromwell & Fairfax, To Kill A King has emerged comparatively unscathed from a fractured production history (see SI March 21). Some signs of wear and tear remain: the film has talk of rebellion and bloodshed without much of it being depicted. The rhythm is also slightly disjointed in places.
But significant virtues balance the many imperfections in a considerable British achievement. The film still displays a much more complex grasp of the issues at stake than was seen in Ken Hughes Cromwell (1970), one of the few previous films to cover the causes and personalities of the English Civil War.
England, 1645. A Civil War has been fought in opposition to the rule and demands of King Charles I (Everett). People's champion General Thomas Fairfax (Scott) works for a reconciliation with the monarch and a stronger Parliamentary democracy. His closest ally Cromwell (Roth), is a committed Republican, wary of a corrupt Parliament and a scheming Charles. Over the next few years, a cautious Fairfax attempts to play peacemaker as Cromwell grows impatient with the King's arrogance and Parliament's self-interest.
Structured as a clash of personalities and beliefs, To Kill A King pits a well intentioned Fairfax against a more single-minded Cromwell. Matters are further complicated by Fairfax's divided loyalties, particularly as wife Anne (Williams) is a staunch Royalist. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to jump from emotional highpoint to emotional highpoint without allowing the material to breathe. Scenes are short and rushed and do not provide enough scope to gain a rounded understanding of the two key figures, making for a film that would have benefited from a significantly longer running time. The absence of a fully realised dramatic arc and a muted conclusion are further weaknesses.
Cinematography from Eigil Bryld conveys the treacly tones of a Hogarth painting and the cast are uniformly good within an approach that restricts any opportunities for razzle-dazzle histrionics. An understated Everett captures the conceit of a man who believes he has a divine right to rule. Scott is a flawed and human hero whilst Roth convincingly conveys the contradictions of the passionate idealist and brutal tyrant that fought within Cromwell's character.
Prod co: Natural Nylon
UK dist: Pathe
Int'l sales: HanWay
Exec prods: Scott Karol, Christopher Petzel, Peter Watson, Paul Webster,Rudolph G Wiesmeier
Prod: Kevin Loader
Assoc prods: Bradley Adams, Dougray Scott
Scr: Jenny Mayhew
Cinematography: Eigil Bryld
Prod des: Sophie Becher
Ed: Guy Bensley
Music: Richard Mitchell
Main cast: Tim Roth, Dougray Scott, Rupert Everett, Olivia Williams, James Bolam, Corin Redgrave