Friday, 9 February 2018

The brilliant Norwegian movie "The King's Choice" is emotionally draining - and enormously rewarding

Sky is currently showing a 144-minute long 2016 subtitled Norwegian war film (a Norwegian-Irish co-production), in which there's very little military action and many scenes of grim-faced men staring moodily out of windows at bleak, snowy landscapes...

...and whose main character is an elderly man struggling with an impossible moral dilemma and beset by crippling back pain while escaping enemy soldiers. Not exactly classic Sky fare - so the broadcaster deserves a special round of applause for leavening its usual diet of American comedies featuring obnoxious teenagers with something that could only be of interest to a tiny minority of its subscribers, and another for giving us the opportunity to see such an utterly compelling picture.

Bit of historical background: Norway seceded from Sweden in 1905, once more becoming a sovereign nation. The government offered the throne to Prince Carl of Denmark, several of whose ancestors had been kings of Norway in the distant past. Although flattered by the offer, Prince Carl said he would only accept if Norway held a referendum, asking the people if they - rather than the government - actually wanted a monarchy rather than a republic: 79% of Norwegians voted for a monarchy, and Carl, who had taken the old Norse name Haakon and had given his son Alexander the Norse name Olav, was enthroned at Trondheim Cathedral in 1906, thus becoming the first elected king of Norway.

Fast forward to 1940, and the Norwegian government is seemingly paralysed by the threat of a German invasion. Although Haakon has largely stuck to his constitutional brief by keeping out of politics, he - and, in particular, Olav - have nevertheless been urging the government to mobilise: instead, it has done nothing. The inevitable invasion of Denmark and Norway finally starts on 9th April. Denmark, whose flat, open landscape makes resistance difficult, faced with the threat of Copenhagen being bombed, resulting in large-scale civilian casualties, capitulates within six hours. In Norway, King Haakon, his son, and his entourage narrowly escape capture by fleeing Oslo and heading North. Vidkun Qusling announces that he is now the head of a new Norwegian government: the Germans demand that King Haakon recognises Quisling's government and orders his army to surrender. The old Norwegian government, which has also managed to escape the Nazis, recommends that Haakon accepts Germany's terms. That is the choice the King faces: does he order the Norwegians to carry on fighting (the country's uniquely impossible geography will help, but many will die as a result, and the Norwegian people as a whole will suffer even more grievously at the hands of the Nazis) - or does he save Norwegian lives by ordering his people to surrender?

The King reaches his final decision during a private meeting with the well-meaning and equally tortured German envoy who has travelled from Oslo to meet Haakon - first, because Hitler has ordered his minion to get Haakon's agreement, and, second, because he sincerely wants to avoid further bloodshed.  In an eruption of barely-controlled and uncharacteristic anger, Haakon tells him that, as the first democratically elected king in Norwegian history, he cannot order his people to surrender unless they have democratically assented to do so. End of negotiations. Norway's army fought on for another two months before surrendering, finally capitulating on June 10th (the longest time any occupied country held out, by the way) - although the Royal Norwegian Navy and other parts of the military would continue the fight.

The Danish actor Jesper Christensen gives an Oscar-worthy performance as King Haakon. He  convey enormous mental anguish without over-emoting - in fact, he barely moves a facial muscle - and his portrayal of an elderly man suffering unbearable back pain almost had me reaching for the ibuprofen. Anders Baasmo Christiansen is very effective as his son, the dashing, headstrong Prince Olav, while the Austrian actor Karl Markovics gives a wonderful, nervy, tortured performance as the hapless German envoy, Curt Bräuer - the contrast between Haakon, who, as King, has to hide his mental and physical torture from those around him, and Bräuer, who is utterly incapable of hiding his emotional turmoil, is beautifully drawn.

In this sequence, a small Norwegian force attempts to hold up German troops attempting to capture the fleeing King:

I don't know to what extent my reaction was coloured by the fact that I'm a Norwegian (born in Oslo and the proud possessor of a Norwegian passport) whose Norwegian father fought in the last war and whose Norwegian uncle was imprisoned by the Germans - but I ended up blubbing like a baby. It started with the scene where Haakon first vents his anger at the German envoy, continues through the sequence where Haakon, his retinue and locals run through snowy woods, trying to avoid strafing fire from the German fighter planes attempting to kill the King, and the one brief post-war scene in which Haakon is reunited with his grandson, Harald (Norway's current king), who has spent the war in America, and reached a crescendo with the "what happened to them" text pages at the end - especially when we're told that the gormless-looking but resourceful teenage soldier who we earlier saw being gravely wounded (see video above) is alive and well and still living in Norway.  Fortunately, I was watching the film on my own, because it has never taken me so long to compose myself after a movie.

Although I've always cried easily at films, I can't ever remember one having quite such an immediate and intense effect. Apart from all the obvious reasons, I suspect the superb score by the Swedish composer Johan Söderqvist may have had something to do with it. Here, as an example, is the (unsubtitled) sequence showing the sinking of the German cruiser Blücher in Oslofjord right at the start of the invasion of Norway - an act which marked the end of the Phoney War in Western Europe:

I'll end with two irrelevant observations: First, Haakon was an immensely tall, lean man, while his son, Olav, was much shorter and, to put it kindly, beefier - the explanation is that Olav's maternal grandfather was Bertie - i.e. Edward VII. Second, one of my earliest memories is of being taken to watch the funeral procession of King Haakon in Oslo in 1957. I was four at the time. Here is the Movietone report on the event:

Hell of a good film - catch it if you can.


  1. As we are thinking about Norway, I will chip in with my two penn'orth.
    I was at a convent school in the 1950s, the chief nun of which was known as "Reverend Mother". She was Norwegian and we thought very highly of her because during the war her convent in Oslo took in Jewish children secretly and arranged for them to be smuggled out of the country.
    Eventually the Gestapo became suspicious and hauled her in for questioning. They got nowhere with their interrogation and eventually muttered "All right, you can go."
    She became irate. "What do you mean, I can go? You storm into my convent, drag me up here for interrogation and then say 'you can go'. You brought me here, so you can either take me back or give the money for a taxi."
    They did, though I forget which.

  2. Really good and informative review and another chance to see the sinking of the Blücher sequence.

    I visited the Oscarsberg fortress in the Oslo Fjord about 20 years ago and inspected the three 11-inch guns that did the initial damage [the Nazis were later annoyed to discover that they had all been named after Old Testament prophets] and the position of the land-based battery whose torpedos actually broke the back of the heavy cruiser and sank her.

    There was further irritation when it was discovered that all these armaments had been bought from Krupp of Essen.