Wednesday, 11 October 2017

The King's Choice (2017) - Movie Review

Even with the breadth of releases that I’ve gotten so far on this blog, today is going to mark not only a first in terms of reviewing but also a personal first. Today's subject marks the first Norwegian film I have ever watched (that I’m aware of), not just the first that I’ve reviewed. Something I’m learning quickly from the prevalence of Indian cinema at my local is that, like a lot of other things, I rely on what I watch when it comes to understanding other cultures.
Some are easier to grasp than others: The American monopoly means that there are a lot of facets of the U.S. that get shown on screen, the occasional British releases have given a better insight into my country’s sovereign nation, and even the increasingly-rare Aussie productions provide a snapshot of my home outside of my suburban domicile. Beyond that, I’m pretty in the dark and no less so than when it comes to Norway. I mean, my extent of the country’s societal trappings comes from Where To Invade Next, and while I would make a joke about how Michael Moore isn’t exactly the most objective viewpoint to adhere to, I’m still trying to comprehend the workings of their prison system as shown in that film.
Basically, if this review sounds like an ill-informed foreigner trying to understand a given culture, it’s only because it is.

The plot: In April of 1940, German forces are poised to occupy Norway. King Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen) and his family evacuate their palace and, between himself, German liaison Curt Bräuer (Karl Markovics) and various other political figures, try and figure out how to resolve this conflict with the least bloodshed possible. However, with the mass confusion going on over the proceeding few days, that task may prove even more difficult than first thought.

Christensen, who we last checked in with as one of the better parts of the otherwise disappointing Spectre, is absolutely incredible as the King. Between his interactions with his family, including the unfathomably warm and comforting conversations he has with his grandson Prince Harald, his attitude concerning the approaching German forces and his connection to Norway, he gets across pretty much everything one would expect from such a role. Same goes for Anders Baasmo Christiansen as his son Olav, channelling similar nationalist attitudes while also including his perspective as a soldier, commenting on how he can conscionably send young men into war if he won’t do it himself in a supremely powerful moment.
Erik Hivju’s initial role as a Norwegian colonel gives some real punch to the scene that starts off everything else we see in the story, and Karl Markovics gives a refreshingly level-headed depiction of the German-appointed foreign minister who, rather than just wanting the Germans to roll over them, wants to prevent open warfare at any cost even if it means disobeying the Fuhrer himself. That kind of strong conviction needed a strong performance to back it up, and while keeping things rather grounded, Markovics delivers.

Despite stepping my toes into new territory in terms of nationality of the production, the story itself is hardly anything new by this point. Stories set in WWII, as I have explained more than enough already in the past, makes for easy Oscar fodder, to the point where this film was actually cast as Norway’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category for the Oscars. As for the methodology behind that story, this probably has the single best approach to its story that it possibly could. Taking place over a scant three days, with 24-esque title cards to show that most scenes only have a couple hours separating them, the film is surprisingly taut for its over-two-hour running time.
Then again, the relatively small timeframe of the events end up making the events themselves have that greater an impact; specifically, when it comes to showing the chaos going on within the Norwegian government. With everything happening at such short notice, and ulterior plans already in place for the German acquisition, the furore we see the characters under hits that much harder as we see everyone scrambling to keep the peace and prevent more deaths. Because of this, as the characters try to arrange for peace agreements, the consequences for anything going wrong feels that much more harrowing because the film presents it all as incredibly likely. When you reach the point of another sovereign nation basically pulling the rug out from under you, the chances of more bad things happening goes up.

As stated already, I know next to nothing about Norwegian culture; I don’t even have the proxy excuse of going by what I’ve seen on film because I lack even that much experience. However, through seeing the usual pissing contests that take place as part of Western politics, I have enough of an idea about nationalism and how much it can affect certain people. Thankfully, at least on the side of the Norwegian officials, we end up seeing the more positive and unifying side of nationalism with how the King and his cohorts try to preserve the Norwegian sovereignty and democratic government. Where this gets a bit strange, and frankly mesmerising, is when it sinks in that Haakon VII and Bräuer are the ones trying the most desperately to maintain the Norwegian standard. The two foreigners most want to preserve the national heritage; hard not to draw parallels between this and the modern approach to multiculturalism that certain European countries have taken to, especially the “throw the baby out with the bath water” approach to issues like immigration.

This is where the film ends up reaching its most poignant statement, in the form of the final conversation between Haakon and Bräuer regarding the titular “choice” that the King must make. A lot of the film concerning Haakon involves him reflecting on past choices, like his acceptance of his place as the King of Norway and how that ended up being a decision he made on behalf of his own family, who ended up relocating with him, but this is undeniably the big one. When presented with the terms, even with Bräuer risking his own life by altering them in order to give peace a chance, Haakon can’t do it. Given how this is decades-old historical evidence being repeated, I don’t think a spoiler tag is necessary, but since this is involving the ending, *SPOILERS*.
Haakon believes that, as the ruler of a democratic society, he alone can’t make the choice of whether or not to acquiesce to the Reich’s demands. After all, if he made a decision on behalf of his entire nation on his own, he wouldn’t be a democratic ruler; he’d be a dictator, no different than the very evil that he is trying to face. Rather than willingly let the Reich take his home, a point made in a weirdly humourous moment about the King looking for excuses to see his home for one last time before he leaves (and isn’t likely to ever return), he upholds his values and those of his people and rejects the demands in a show of democratic allegiance.

All in all, while I personally wasn’t intensely engaged by this film, that isn’t nearly enough to make me ignore the sheer power behind this production. The acting is stellar, the production wields a small space of time to reveal incredibly dramatic turmoil within the story, and the writing combines sharp character definition with an enthralling sense of national pride to show what a single act of defiance can ultimately lead to, for better and for worse. I won’t pretend to know all of the fallout based on the events shown in this film, but on its own, this is very moving and very relevant cinema that I hope gets that Oscar spotlight, if for no other reason than to show what Norwegian national identity can create.

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