Norwegian director Erik Poppe is no stranger to a good drama – having previously released films like Hawaii, Oslo, Troubled Waters, and most recently the British film A Thousand Times Goodnight. Poppe is now back on home soil with a fine example of Norwegian national romanticism in The King’s Choice. This is undoubtedly the biggest film he has done, but Poppe proves to be the right man for the job. He is not afraid to use big emotions, and this shows as he manoeuvres us between the politics, weighting principles and difficult decisions the royal family and Norwegian government had to make.
The story of the occupation of Norway in World War II isn’t new to anyone: Norway, though a neutral country, was occupied on the 9th of April 1940. The occupation of Norway is based on various sides: Hitler believed Norway to be a strategic country geographically and believed Norway was working with England. Vidkun Quisling, the leader of Norway’s fascist party, had tried to persuade Hitler that he would form a government in support of occupying Germans, though Hitler was unreceptive. On the first day of invasion, Quisling, using his own initiative, burst into the NK studios on the 9th of April and declared himself prime minister, ordering all resistance to the occupation halted at once. This did not please the Germans, who initially wanted a legitimate government in place. When it became clear that the Norwegian parliament wouldn’t surrender, the Germans quickly recognised Quisling. Hitler, not aware of anyone better, supported him from the evening of the 9th of April. They demanded King Haakon VII appoint him as prime minister and return the government to Oslo. When the German ambassador presented the demands to Haakon, the king said he would abdicate before appointing Quisling. The German’s began bombing where they believed the King and government to be, and eventually they fled to England. History lesson over, this is the story The King’s Choice tells.
We experience the drama primarily through King Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen) and Crown Prince Olav (Anders Baasmo Christensen) as the film countdowns the hours leading up to the occupation of Norway on the 9th of April 1940 and the subsequent battles, government decisions and eventual fleeing of the Royal family and government to England. The film opens with a shot of King Haakon VII with a gloved hand over his eyes, which really introduces us to how Norway was at the time: blind to the threats of World War II. When the German’s suddenly invade, Norway is completely unprepared. What’s interesting is that the film doesn’t show Quisling, the man who helped the German’s invade, despite showing other sides of the political scenario. This could potentially be because of the negative connotations associated with Quisling (today in Norway the word ‘quisling’ is associated with the word ‘traitor’), and any attempt to humanise such a character surely wouldn’t work in the films favour.
The King’s Choice skilfully moves between the humanistic sequences and big battles, including the sinking of the German ship Blucher, and this constantly reminds us that the war is a very serious matter and that the film is not just a chamber drama. It’s clear that Poppe wanted to recreate the chaos and confusion that arose during the German invasion while keeping King Haakon VII as the moral, doubting centre. But we aren’t drawn into Haakon immediately. At first he comes across as an absent-minded king who is accused of not responding immediately to the threat. However, this is one of the films strongest qualities: it shows us how vulnerable Norway really was at the time. This is reflected in the king’s body language and loneliness. Poppe has succeeded in creating a personal drama about not only the king’s struggle but also the varying individuals involved in the war, from the teenage soldier’s on the frontline to the German ambassador. We watch them struggle with their own conscience and morals as they make impossible choices.
Jesper Christiansen is perfect for this role, and it’s clear why he was chosen for the lead. He has little dialogue and focuses more on facial expressions, which never really gives us clarification. Despite this, he emerges as a contrast to all the cold and distant royals we’ve seen on film. Christiansen has an empathy and credibility that allows him to be King Haakon VII. He is a vulnerable king – a family man aware of his position. His handling of the crisis from World War II is very much the reason the royal family has such a strong position in Norwegian society today.
Anders Baasmo Christiansen is in one of his best roles ever as Crown Prince Olav. The prince has a military background and pressed strongly for Norway to reject all of the German demands. The interaction between King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav is outstanding. The future king is outspoken, energetic and principled, yet not afraid to take shortcuts. He is contradictory to his father and these creates an amazing dynamic that carries the film wonderfully. Baasmo Christiansen’s Olav is the Norwegian national soul in this scenario and the role suits him perfectly. It brings out a new complexity in arguably Norway’s biggest movie star.
Also outstanding is the role of the German Ambassador, played by Karl Markovics. Surprisingly he has been given a central role to the film, but it works so well in contrast to the royals. It shows that the war was truly dynamic in the individuals it affected, no matter the side we were on. the Ambassador is completely unaware, unprepared and is then given the difficult task by Berlin to convince the King to allow the German’s in. We see his struggles at home, in the embassy and with the Nazi’s.
Overall, The King’s Choice is an extraordinarily riveting, touching and effective history lesson. Despite its big themes it remains a traditional Norwegian film in feel and tone, and this is what makes it worth watching. While it is a fiction film based on a book, The King’s Choice is a historical document that will contribute to the national view of Norway’s history. Not only that, the film resonates well in the present day. The King’s Choice is the perfect choice for Norway’s Academy Award nomination and will also give Norwegian cinema admissions a huge boost. Definitely the best film of the year from Norway.
An interview with Erik Poppe, Jesper Christiansen and Anders Baasmo Christiansen will be included in our November magazine, due for release on the 26th of October.