Kongens Nei – The King’s No

kongensneiIt might be strange for Americans, who fought a war to get rid of a king, to learn that Norwegians voted one in after gaining their independence peacefully. Since 1905, when Norway left the union with Sweden, our kings have been a source of pride, patriotism and fondness. This is useful in that we can all hate on our politicians as much as we like. During the Second World War King Haakon VII was used by many as a symbol of resistance against the Nazi occupation.

The King’s No is perhaps the story that cemented this sentiment in the Norwegian people. It adds as much action and epic patriotism as it can, without sacrificing too much history on the alter of Hollywood. The result is something between a History Channel reenactment (with a budget) and a biographical look into a foreign prince who became a democratically elected king.

The King’s No follows the events of the three days following the invasion of Norway on the 9th of April, 1940. This is a day that is as infamous in Norway as Pearl Harbor Day is in America, if not more so. The invasion caught the Norwegian government unprepared, and although resistance was made and continued for weeks, much of Norway was taken very easily. A few key events are well-known: the sinking of the German ship Blücher on the night of the invasion, the fleeing of the government from the capital, and “the king’s no”.

While well-known events, they have never been captured like this on film. We know the Nazis came up the Oslo fjord on that dark night in April, but never have I seen it in like this. The first scenes from the fortress on the fjord are incredibly tense and atmospheric. We gaze out over the foggy fjord, desperately searching for the German ships that have been reported. Finally the search light spots one, but now what? Do they fire, are we at war now? It was a moment when decisions had to be made. The film does a great job of conveying those confusing first hours. The fear and uncertainty, the mad dash to decide who does what and goes where, all of it is great movie-making. The pure practical things that had to be done, and the negotiations that follow, remind me of Cold War movies.

The King himself, played by Danish Jesper Christensen (you probably know him as Mr. White in the Craig Bond movies) is a fascinating character. An elected king, and a figurehead representing a foreign people, he has deep emotions concerning his role. His son Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) is less interesting, being represented as a very typical young prince desperate to show what a real king should be. His lines sound a little middle-school. The stand out performance was Karl Markovics as Kurt Braüer, the German emissary. His role is put into immediate uncertainty, and he scrambles for control. It is he who works towards negotiations, having a genuine desire to avoid as much bloodshed as possible. It’s a shame the film stretches itself towards more action when the good stuff is taking place inside offices.

The third plot-line in the film is the young Norwegian soldiers mobilising and engaging in battle. Also very well done, though they have a History Channel feel at times. The three plotlines are interwoven nicely, but I didn’t really need all three. My biggest frustration is how they make Norway seem like a tiny place, with how all our characters collide so easily. It might have been prudent to show the scope of the invasion by having someone outside of Eastern Norway trying to coordinate across a country that even today can be difficult to traverse and communicate across.

Another frustration is the sense that the film uses the action as a crutch in order to keep the audience entertained. The focus is obviously on King Haakon, but most of the excitement comes from the other characters, with the exception of a last action sequence and the titular scene. Either the film could have allowed itself to be an proper character-study, instead of using shortcuts like lingering shots of a pensive King, or the film could have let us feel the full scope of those three days. As it is, the film is neither a personal study or the invasion story. While the King tells us his position and his views on the monarchy, we don’t understand his background all that much. There is lots of telling and no showing between the him and the crown-prince. Would the film have been too boring if we had gotten more of his private life? I must admit I did feel my eyelids tire during some of these conversations.

The last question always asked of these films is “what about historical accuracy?” Overall the film follows the events, and I’ve not read enough of the period to judge the details. The film (and the book it was based on) has rightly received flack for its portrayal of prime minister Nygaardsvold. He is basically a coward, staring at his feet, shuffling, nervous and eager to abandon his post. Even if I had political objections to him, I can safely say the over-the-top characterization was uncomfortable.

Does the king’s “no” send a surge of patriotism through me? Not really. Despite the poster above, the film doesn’t feel overly patriotic. The titular scene instead made me feel the weight of history, of defining moments, of courage and resistance. When the film focuses on those themes, it’s great. The King’s No is definitely worth a watch, even for non-history buffs and foreign viewers.

Dice roll: 4

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