Friday, 1 September 2017

THE KING'S CHOICE : Tuesday 29th August 2017.

'THE KING'S CHOICE' which I saw earlier this week is a WWII historical biographical drama film, and a Norwegian offering that was nominated as a Best Foreign Language Film entry into this years Academy Awards. Directed by Erik Poppe, this little known story of the dramatic events in the wartime history of Norway has received much critical acclaim as much for the Directing as the performances by the principal cast, the storytelling, the cinematography and the production values. The film cost US$8M to make and has so far grossed US$9M.

By way of a quick history lesson, the film centres around King Haakon VII - who was born Christian Frederik Carl Georg Valdemar Axel, known as Prince Carl of Denmark until 1905, and was a Danish Prince who became the first King of Norway after the 1905 dissolution of the union with Sweden. He reigned from November 1905 until his death in September 1957. As one of the few elected monarchs, Haakon quickly won the respect and admiration of his people. He played a pivotal role in uniting the Norwegian nation in its resistance to the might of the German forces as they invaded Norway and took a subsequent five-year-long occupation of his country during World War II. Regarded as one of the greatest Norwegians of the 20th Century, he is held in high esteem for his courage during the German invasion—he threatened abdication if the government cooperated with the invading Germans—and for his leadership and preservation of Norwegian unity during the occupation. He died at the age of 85 in September 1957, after having reigned for nearly 52 years and was succeeded by his only son, Olav V who reigned until his death in January 1991 aged 87.

This film tells the story of a chain of events in early April 1940 when German Nazi troops arrive in Norway's capital city, Oslo, and demand of the King - surrender or die! Norway was invaded by the naval and air forces of Nazi Germany during the early hours of 9 April 1940. The German naval detachment sent to capture Oslo was opposed by Oscarsborg Fortress located in Drobak Sound, the northernmost part of the outer Oslofjord in southern Norway. The fortress fired at the invaders with heavy artillery which the German's had underestimated, sinking the heavy cruiser Blucher and damaging the heavy cruiser Lutzow, with significant German losses that included many of their armed forces, Gestapo Agents, and administrative staff who were all set to occupy the Norwegian capital. This led to the withdrawal of the rest of the German flotilla for the time being, preventing the invaders from occupying Oslo at dawn as was their plan. The German delay in occupying Oslo, along with swift action by the President of the Storting ('the Great Assembly' being the supreme legislature of Norway) created the opportunity for the Norwegian Royal Family composing King Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen), his son Crown Prince Olav (Anders Bassmo Christiansen) and his wife Crown Princess Martha (Tuva Novotny) and their three young children, the Cabinet, and most of the 150 members of the Storting to make a hasty and discreet departure from the capital by special train.

The King and his family, and the members of the Storting first convened at the town of Hamar that same afternoon, but with the rapid advance of German troops, the group moved on to Elverum and holed up in various farm houses there that would offer refuge. The assembled Storting unanimously enacted a resolution, the so-called Elverum Authorization, granting the Cabinet full powers to protect the country until such time as the Storting could meet again. In the meantime, the Prime Minster tenders his resignation, and with it the dissolution of the Cabinet, effectively leaving Norway without a government, at a time when it desperately need it the most. Needless to say the King does not accept the resignation of the Prime Minister or the disbandment of the Storting, and addresses the gathered Cabinet leaders in a theatre in the town to tell them it has got to be business as usual, and hunker down to thwart the advancing German threat to them all.

Meanwhile Curt Brauer (Karl Markovics) as the German Envoy to Norway is actively trying to broker a peace deal that will halt the German invasion and the unnecessary shedding of blood, and electing a puppet government headed up by the fascist Vidkun Quisling, who only hours earlier had declared himself Norway's new Prime Minister. Had the King approved his appointment, it would effectively have legally sanctioned the German invasion. Brauer is fast running out of time and is gaining little support from the German officer who takes his orders from Berlin, and that is to advance at all haste and take Norway by force if necessary. Brauer takes a direct telephone call from Adolf Hitler saying for him to broker a deal with the King, and the King only, and to do it quickly and with the desired outcome. 

By now the German forces had passed through Hamar and were converging on Elverum. A small ground force of Norwegian reservist soldiers form a barricade and make ready for the arrival of the German troops under cover of darkness. Meanwhile, the King, Olav and the Cabinet have fled for Nybergsund. At this point the King makes the decision that it is way too dangerous for the family to stay together and move about the country as one unit, and that the Crown Princess and the three children should seek safe refuge in neighbouring Sweden, leaving the King and his son to continue their journey and oversee the task in hand. The Germans arrive at Elverum and quickly overpower the Norwegian armed contingent, many of them no more than teenage boys who hold off for long enough only to cause a temporary inconvenience for the advancing invaders.

Brauer demands a meeting with the King in an attempt to broker a deal as required directly by Hitler. Brauer travels to Nybergsund and is halted at a checkpoint where he is ordered out of his car, blindfolded and taken to a secret location where the King and the Cabinet are holed up. The King staunchly demands that the key four members of the Storting remain present for the meeting, but Brauer will have none of this, recounting his orders from Hitler himself to deal with no-one but the King. Brauer threatens to leave, and so the King relents and the two talk alone. Brauer suggested that Haakon should best follow the example of the Danish government and his brother, the King there, who had surrendered almost immediately after the previous day's invasion, and threatened Norway with harsh reprisals if it did not surrender. Haakon tells Brauer that he cannot make such a decision himself, and only on the advice of the Government, and the people of Norway who had democratically voted him in as their King thirty-five or so years previously.

After Brauer leaves without the Kings signature on his papers, Haakon delivers an impassioned speech to the gathered Cabinet. He advises of the German ultimatum and that he was not in a position to make such a decision himself, even though he knows he has the power to influence such a decision. He knows the implications of his choice upon the people and his country of Norway, and states that such a decision must rest with the Government which he will accept either way, albeit his decision is clear. He goes on to add that he cannot sanction Vidkun Quisling as Prime Minister because he knows that Quisling has neither support of the people or the Storting. If however, the Cabinet feels otherwise, he and his family will abdicate their positions as Norway's Royal Family, so as not to be seen as an obstacle to the Government's decision. This sends a shockwave through the room.

Later that evening Brauer receives a telephone call advising him of the King's choice not to accept the ultimatum. Early the next morning the thunderous sound of German bombers overhead all but destroy the town where Haakon, Olav and the Government have been staying, in an attempt to wipe out Norway's unyielding monarchy. The King and his Ministers seek refuge in the snow covered forest nearby and escape harm. Ultimately Haakon, Olav and his family are reunited in London after the war has ended, where the King and the Crown Prince sought exile during the war years and continued their resistance of the German occupation of their country from afar.

'The King's Choice' is a dialogue heavy film, with a few moments of action to break up this story of three days of defiance in the face of extreme adversity that changed the course of Norwegian history, or as the Norwegians would have us believe. Yet despite the stoic stiff upper lip principles of King Haakon, Norway was a sovereign territory, largely neutral in its war effort and certainly ill equipped to deal with the might of the heavily armed, forceful and relentless German war machine. And so the King is in a real quandary here - hand his country over to the great oppressor on a silver plate to be ruled over by a fascist tyrant, or face an unknown future as a result of his single minded defiance! This film is made by Norwegians, about a moment in the history of Norway, for largely Norwegians, and on that level I can see the appeal, but to the rest of the world, will this film hold that much interest I wonder? The performances are solid enough, the production values speak volumes more than the US$8M budget would have us believe, the hand held camerawork adds an immediacy to the proceedings albeit is a little shaky at times, but for me the film labours on about three days to reach a determination that had little consequence on Germany's occupation of Norway, other than to save the life of the King and his family, and poke a stick momentarily in the eye of Adolf Hitler. All that said, I certainly learned something about WWII and this lesser known story of Norwegian grit, determination, and resistance even if some liberties are taken to keep the story moving along and engage the audience for its 130 minute running time. You don't need to see this on the big screen and can easily wait for the DVD and BluRay release.

-Steve, at Odeon Online-

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