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Your Choice Should Be To Watch 'The King's Choice'

Paradox/Nordisk Film Production/Film Väst/Zentropa Sweden/Copenhagen Film Fund/Newgrange Pictures

World War II still seems to be the go-to setting for movies about genuine moral choices. My cynical side figures that maybe World War II is far enough away to be a safe and now-harmless locale for quaint behavior, or maybe World War II still has the caché and moral clarity we need. At any rate, The King’s Choice gives real urgency to the making of moral choices – and those choices take place in situations that are both public and deeply private.

The film’s based on the actual dilemma presented to King Haakon of Norway in early April 1940. When Germany invaded Norway, the Norwegians sank the first German ship to enter their waters. Even though King Haakon was a figurehead and actual power resided with the prime minister and the cabinet – and the people in that democratic country – the Nazis demanded the King agree to a protectorate. He and others in government fled to the north.

Norway is a small country, and in April 1940 it’s snowy and hard to get around. The king is not a regal figure. There’s none of the pomp we love in dramas about the English royals, and the king of Norway does not sit atop a grandiose pedestal, nor get to be so remote from the people as American presidents. King Haakon was an elected king brought in from Denmark when the Norwegian/Swedish alliance fell apart in 1905. He’s called “majesty” and all that, but according to the movie, the king is just a person with a ceremonial job.

Director Erik Poppe makes the film intimate and grand at the same time. He films with a hand-held camera, but it’s disciplined so that the shots don’t bounce around incoherently. Instead, you feel the disruption facing the country and the king (Jesper Christensen), and the uncertainty that the king must resolve. The Germans want him, so he must move quickly. North of Oslo he goes from farm to farm, and when word comes that the Nazis are headed his way, he and his family hop into cars and are driven farther away to another big farm. No bands, no military escort, no messages of support from Franklin Roosevelt or Winston Churchill.

As things fall apart, the movie draws closer to King Haakon as a person. When he sends his daughter-in-law and grandchildren to Sweden, it’s by car, at night, in the snow, and on screen a family decides to protect the children and the country from frightful danger. Later the king and his grown son, the crown prince, talk about what to do – just the two of them on a lonely road, weighing their father-son complexities with their beliefs in duty and obligation. And when the bombs start to fall, the king, his son and a bunch of other Norwegians run for the woods. The king helps an old man to his feet; he crawls through the snow to protect a child with his own body.

Credit Paradox/Nordisk Film Production/Film Väst/Zentropa Sweden/Copenhagen Film Fund/Newgrange Pictures

The King’s Choice has feeling for people besides the king. A detachment of guardsmen deploys to fight off a unit of German regular soldiers, better armed and better trained. The Norwegian boys are completely inexperienced and frightened. They look like children, in helmets and uniforms that don’t fit, uncertain of how to prepare.

Some members of the cabinet want to negotiate with the Nazis. King Haakon senses that is not a good idea. And that’s the choice he must make, whether to treat the Nazis as a legitimate power with whom to make deals about the status of his country, or to refuse and insist on the integrity of Norway. He knows the cost will be terrible, either way. But, like the king, The King’s Choice is modest and unassuming. The film never gets pompous, and what makes The King’s Choice thrilling is the sight of a leader who knows the difference between self-interest and the responsibilities he chose.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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