The King's Choice

Madeline Copley | 11/07/2017

That The King's Choice (Kongens nei) should have been chosen as the centrepiece for Volvo's Scandinavian Film Festival is no surprise. Despite taking place over the course of just three tumultuous days, The King's Choice, with its skirmishes, politicking and domestic dramas, has an epic feel to it.

Eric Poppe's vision (supported by an insightful script by Harald Rosenløw-Eeg and Jan Trygve Røyneland) is one which is at once nationalistic but also deeply humanistic. The King's Choice examines the political and diplomatic realities surrounding Haakon VII's choice not to sanction Norway's accession to German demands for collaboration under the control of coup leader and Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling (progenitor of the traitor's traditional epithet). After the sinking of a German destroyer by Norwegian forces, King Haakon (Jesper Christensen) flees Oslo along with his son, Crown Prince Olav (whose impatient inexperience is captured admirably by Anders Baasmo Christiansen), daughter-in-law Princess Märtha (Tuva Novotny), grandchildren and the remnants of the Norwegian cabinet. Thus, the action is split between rural Norway and the German occupied capital, giving cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund the chance to make the most of the opportunity to showcase Norway's icy beauty.

 

A World War II film from a perspective less familiar to non-Norwegian audiences, Poppe captures the Norwegian innocence in the face of the relentless German onslaught with intelligence and sensitivity. A tense battle sequence at a roadblock north of Oslo that Norwegian forces hope will impede the German pursuit of the King is focalised through Fredrik Seeberg (Arthur Hakalahti), whose extreme youth provides a touching embodiment of his country's naïve hope that its hastily assembled armed forces would be able to halt the relentless onslaught of the German war machine. The film is replete with reminders of the personal cost of war and the heavy burden of responsibility - Haakon's reluctance to depart his home and Olav's visceral sorrow when farewelling his wife and children are touching. The tension and emotion of each scene is carefully complimented by award-winning Swedish composer, Johan Söderqvist.

 

The success of a film amongst viewers who are reliant upon subtitles for comprehension is so dependent upon the physical and non-verbal performances given by its actors. Christensen is outstanding as Haakon - capturing the humanity of Norway's democratically elected king; a man frequently crippled by unbearable back pain who remains unbowed in the face of German aggression. Christensen's Haakon is gentle with his grandchildren, unaffected with his subjects, watchful and circumspect with Cabinet as well as commanding and tenacious in the face of his own fears and his country's enemies. If the development of other characters suffers somewhat in the face of the scriptwriter's focus on Haakon, Karl Markovics' finely drawn portrait of Curt Brauer, the deeply flawed and cravenly idealistic German diplomat more than makes up for it. The negotiations between Haakon - a figurehead monarch, whose Constitutional duty permits him to go to war but whose own values require that any decision be made by his people - and Brauer, an envoy so woefully equipped for his position that his appalling Norwegian forces him to request that discussion take place in German, make for some of the finest moments of political dialogue in the film.

 

A source of some frustration is the occasional illegibility of some of the subtitled dialogue - at certain moments, the frame is suffused with brighter lights and colours which renders the white text somewhat difficult to read. The historical accuracy of the set and costumes reveal interesting details about the day to day life of Norwegians at the time and the reconstruction of the political events surrounding the King's choice are a fascinating insight into a hugely important event often forgotten outside of Norway.

Conclusion

Whilst some will be put off by the language barrier and others by the prospect of yet another film about World War II, The King's Choice is an outstanding piece of cinema, in any language. A deserving centrepiece of the Volvo Scandinavian Film Festival, The King's Choice is an intelligent portrait of both a monarch, a man and a nation at a pivotal point in their histories