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The scenes that sting and linger in this uncommonly thoughtful and engrossing war drama are not its scenes of combat. They’re of efforts to stave off combat, of politicians and royalty trying to work out a deal to maintain neutrality, of parliaments dissolving and the radio blaring the news to the people that today is the first day of fascism. That pacifistic urgency thrums through the scenes of more traditional battlefield tension, too. Soldiers, often heartbreakingly young, peer into the night at the faint outline of an invading force, waiting for the order to fire — and maybe hoping that it doesn't come, that the defenders’ inevitable defeat might at least be bloodless.
That happens twice in The King's Choice, both in scenes of piercing tension. First, it’s as a Norwegian artillery squad watches a German battleship shark through the fog and toward Oslo. Later, it’s as an overmatched squad of green teens steeling themselves to face the ground forces who have come for Norway's king. It’s April 1940, and the Germans are seizing the Scandinavian country even as they insist they maintain the facade of negotiations between the two nations. The German ambassador (Karl Markovics) in this telling endeavors to find a way for Norway to surrender with honor, allowing King Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen) to maintain his largely ceremonial sovereignty. But before he can arrange that, the detestable Vidkun Quisling, head of Norway’s fascist party, announced himself as the new prime minister, banking on Hitler’s support. Quisling never appears in The King’s Choice; instead, the film follows, over a three-day period, the ambassador’s efforts to undercut the traitor, to preserve the monarchy and to deliver Norway to the Fuhrer without bloodshed. The king, meanwhile, finds himself without a government and suddenly expected to wield power. His choice: Trust the ambassador or send the young men of his proudly neutral country out to die.
The firefights offer no relief from the film’s sense of tragic inevitability. Unlike American war movies, this Norwegian production offers no sense of the battlefield as proving ground, of violence as baptism, of that conviction that so many filmmakers share that all previous war movies' carnage must be one-upped. A barn gets torched in the background during one of The King's Choice's two skirmishes, and the screaming of the livestock on the soundtrack has haunted me more than the showy gore of Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge. American movies depict war either as honor-granting thrill ride or a soiled carpet that we, being bad dogs, must have our faces ground into. The King’s Choice, in the spirit of Denmark’s neutrality, depicts it as something to be avoided at all costs. (The film was a hit in Norway, which selected it as that country’s entry in Best Foreign Film category of this year’s Academy Awards.)
But it can’t, and when the fascists rise we must rise against them. The air raids come, the boys do die, and the elderly king must flee through the snow at night as a village burns behind him. The film is handsomely mounted, traditional in its scenecraft, superbly acted, and much less ham-handed than you might expect from a historical drama about a great man’s great moment. Occasionally, it gets a touch stuffy or prideful, but less so than ours do in the states — and in service of the stirring, not-incompatible beliefs that war ain’t great and that you can’t negotiate with Nazis.