A handsome widescreen history lesson, “The King’s Choice” digs deep into the inexhaustible subject of World War II from a fresh perspective.
In April 1940, largely pacifist and officially neutral Norway faced a critical dilemma. Germany’s army massed on the border to commandeer the nation’s valuable reserves of iron ore and strategically important coastline harbors. Should the nation’s leader take the risk of combat against a vastly superior foe, or avoid bloodshed through a peaceful surrender of its freedom to the invaders? Either way, Norway would pay a heavy price.
The moral, ethical and political consequences of an unwinnable situation are the focus of director Erik Poppe’s film. Drawing a vivid sense of danger from tense negotiations as well as small-scale but harrowing battle scenes, the film plays out over three days. Diplomats, Norway’s cabinet and its ceremonial King Haakon VII (played in kindly, grandfatherly fashion by Danish actor Jesper Christensen) debate the situation feverishly as the doomsday clock ticks and German bombers fly overhead.
In early 1940, Germany still preferred the window dressing of negotiation to blatant displays of military hostility. The German envoy, Curt Brauer (Karl Markovics), finds himself unexpectedly on the phone with the Führer, jumping to his feet in full Heil Hitler fashion. He nearly trembles as he asks how to handle the fact that the traitor Vidkun Quisling, leader of Norway’s fascist party and the Nazis’ choice to run the country, would never be accepted as the new prime minister by commoners nor king. “Quisling is a good man,” Hitler replies, “the right man on the right spot.”
Brauer is ordered to make an end run around the government and make it clear to the king that the new head of state has Hitler’s strong support. The envoy, a meek middle of the road type who wants to offend no one in power, Norwegians included, groans after the call, “I’m a diplomat! I work for peace!”
The government collapsing beneath him, the king, Norway’s monarch since 1905, finds the fate of the nation in his noble but unskilled hands, worrying all the time about the fate of his grandchildren. As Brauer presses for capitulation, Haakon answers, “Your own Führer said that a country that surrenders does not deserve to live.”
The film’s performances, production design, wardrobe and high-momentum editing are beyond reproach. The snowy Scandinavian spring is gorgeously shot largely in tense handheld style. The screenplay is involved but never difficult to understand. It provides a thoughtful, warts-and-all portrait of a stuffy historical figure who had greatness thrust upon him.
It should surprise no one that “The King’s Choice” was a hit in Norway and was selected as that country’s entry in Best Foreign Film category for this year’s Academy Awards. Given how much Oscar voters adore films about royalty and WWII, it may well win.