By Jake Rutkowski.
About twenty minutes into The King’s Choice, it hits me: I know absolutely nothing about Norway’s political history. Nor its governmental structure. Nor its involvement in World War II. Nothing. While there are some informational title cards at the start of the film, I found myself bereft of any sense of dramatic irony, a blindspot brought on by my own bubble of American exceptionalism, as I watched King Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen) race through literal and emotional bombardments towards a decision about where his country will stand in relation to its imminent invasion by Nazi Germany. Pitching my own ignorance as a sense of accomplishment, I’ll say that there was a heightened narrative tension in not knowing what exactly the “king’s choice” would be. Dunderheaded guessing games aside, the film creates its own honest sense of turmoil in its visual realism and raw character dynamics. It’s one of the more intense road movies I’ve seen, as the king and his family’s flight from statehouse to farmhouse provides the backbone to a diasporic story as the relative apocalypse of world war inches ever closer.
Scandinavian filmmaking is often stereotyped as melancholic and fraught with existential inquiry. Bleak landscapes and doomed characters are in no short order in this film, but its heart lies with matters of family. As bombs fall and Nazis loom the film forces reflections on duty and democracy, but its explorations of familial love and strife are what make it memorable. In this way, it succeeds in finding a heartfelt core where that other cross-cutting WWII release from this year, with a similar metronomic score and driving pace and slight jingoism, does not. And while the broader appeals to unity and national pride in an election year (Norway just held parliamentary elections in September) feel slightly overdone by film’s end, The King’s Choice ultimately cuts through an exposition-heavy war story to find emotional intimacy in geopolitics.
The King’s Choice opts for a full-bore documentary style that’s rare to see in a narrative film outside of a Paul Greengrass feature or found footage horror entry. All the hallmarks of a procedural reenactment are here: handheld camerawork, tight blocking, unsteady zooms, believable sound design, plenty of timestamping and location chyrons. The Greengrass connection doesn’t stop at aesthetics either, as the overall multi-angle telling of a violent historical moment seems to borrow his Bloody Sunday (2002) as a schematic. One magical side effect of choosing this ultra-realism for location shooting in Norway is the mesmerizing quality of the outdoor scenes, as the snow lends them a magical glow. When the film opens on the king playing hide-and-seek with his grandchildren, he’s engulfed in a crisp and pure radiance that prefigures his innocent dedication to the children’s well-being throughout the film. And the farmhouse battlefield that Trooper Seeberg (Arthur Hakalahti) settles into for a nighttime foxhole scrum shines with a blue fluorescence that renders the ensuing carnage absurd. Capturing the horrors of war in photorealistic detail is not the objective here. Instead, the documentary approach is used mostly as a means of lending candor and emotional honesty to wartime politicking.
The performances bear out the film’s intent to tug at small, personal threads of a very big story. King Haakon VII’s arc with his son, Crown Prince Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen), is the emotional crux of the film, as they take the opportunity afforded them by clandestine strategy sessions to air out old grievances about agency in a royal family and life with an awkwardly absentee matriarch. In some way, this feels like the other side of the table to Poppe’s last film 1,000 Times Good Night (2013), which follows Juliette Binoche’s war photographer Rebecca as she puts herself in constant jeopardy for her vocation and drifts further from her husband and children. We don’t get many overt references to Nazism in the film. There’s a small ceremony as a limp swastika flag is raised at a government building in the cold grey dawn, and a frank and brief phone conversation with Hitler who only appears in voiceover, but the only sustained face of fascism is shown by German diplomat Curt Bräuer (Karl Markovics), who hopes that he can ease Norway into inaction as the Nazi war machine puts the small country in its crosshairs. He’s ambivalent, equivocating, and uncomfortably sympathetic, to a point. Then, in a moment of frustration just after his phonecall with the führer, he slaps his wife (Katharina Schüttler), with an observing Nazi captain hanging over his shoulder in deep focus like the proverbial devil of his conscience. This moment of marital misogyny proves to be a point of no return for Bräuer, its weight serving as an ethical anchor for the film.
Ultimately, The King’s Choice positions world historical theater as a matter of family politics. It does not shy away from the violence and the ugliness of such drama, but it does lend a humanist touch to the spectacles of war. It’s hard to feel too terribly inspired by the specifics of the story when King Haakon VII’s moral quandary had more to do with a rules-based commitment to democracy than any sense of ethical conviction. Still, the idea of honest discussion and community building in the face of fascism is a nice one, if only for its unfortunate timeliness.
Jake Rutkowski holds an MA in English from Rutgers University in Camden, where he studied genre semantics and the African-American hero in Western films of the 1970s. He helps program the Reel East Film Festival and regularly covers film at Identity Theory and Cutting to Continuity.