Auds in search of food for the ears rather than fodder for the eyes will be richly rewarded by “To Kill a King,” a costume drama centered on Blighty’s brief and bloody flirtation with republicanism in the mid-17th century. Led by Tim Roth’s chilling portrayal of upstart revolutionary Cromwell, a tony, non-vet British cast provides a muscular interpretation of Jenny Mayhew’s literate script to pleasing results. Though the film fumbles its ending, and is a tad short on action to marble the talkier moments, this is a powerful throwback to a period of costumers — that effectively ended 30-odd years ago — when discourse, ideas and dialogue were more important than visual effects. Sandwiched between “X2” and “Matrix” on its May 16 release in the U.K., pic could grab a few quick doubloons from older upscale viewers before heading for the ancillary hills.
Pic has had a tortuous history in its six-year journey to the screen from first-timer Jenny Mayhew’s original script (“Cromwell & Fairfax”) that producer Kevin Loader originally initiated under the Natural Nylon banner. Finally shot during early 2002, but shutting down twice during that period as financing fell apart, film was finally brought in for some $15 million from its original projected budget of $22 million. Filmmakers’ determination not to cast any U.S. names caused many of the fiscal problems.
Though “King” puts many of its bigger sequences up front, and could have done with more visual sweep in the central and latter sections, what money was available is still all up on the screen, giving a flavor for 17th-century life — plus the fashion clash between the flouncy royalists and puritanical republicans. Widescreen lensing by Danish d.p. Eigil Bryld has a bleak, wintry look and subdued colors, heavy on ochres, off-reds and deep blacks, but his mobile camera and the lived-in look of the production and costume design give the film a physical feel that matches the perfs.
Opening in 1645, pic has a sense of dramatic immediacy, as the human cost of the Civil War that’s ravaged England for three years is graphically sketched while Thomas Fairfax (Dougray Scott) and his deputy, Oliver Cromwell (Roth), wearily celebrate their victory over the royalists. The difference between the two men is evident: Fairfax, the charismatic aristo with a sexy, ambitious wife, Anne (Olivia Williams), and Cromwell, the declasse, puritan radical. Cleverly, the seeds of their unlikely friendship — driven by Cromwell’s admiration for Fairfax’s style — are later shown to become the seeds of their eventual split.
Richard G. Mitchell’s powerful, ecclesiastical-sounding music helps early sequences grab attention before the dramatic stage widens. Charles I (Rupert Everett) is under house arrest, and his army beaten, but the constitutional changes to put him under the power of Parliament and make England a republic are still a matter for negotiation. Duplicity by Holles (James Bolam), the Speaker of Parliament, looks like a watering down of all Fairfax and Cromwell have fought for.
The king skillfully forges a friendship with Anne, who in turn pressures her husband to treat him in a more dignified way. When Cromwell sends his men to arrest the troublesome Holles, Fairfax even tips off the latter, allowing him to escape so long as he never returns to England.
Cracks in the relationship between Fairfax and Cromwell already start to show, with the latter convinced that only total, absolute revolution will succeed, while the former still hopes change can be brought about in a more rational way, without further bloodshed. However, Fairfax isn’t helped by the king’s utter refusal to compromise, his insistence that he rules by divine right. Exasperated, Cromwell takes the law into his own hands, with the unheard-of step of putting Charles I on trial for his life in January 1649.
England’s one and only Civil War has received paltry big-screen treatment compared with, say, those of the U.S. or France, the only major version being Columbia’s “Cromwell” (1970), starring Richard Harris and Alec Guinness and helmed by Ken Hughes, who himself spent a decade trying to get the story made. But where “Cromwell” took a broader, more textbook approach — detailing the whole Anglican vs. Catholic background, centering on Charles and Cromwell, and providing large-scale battle scenes for the war itself — “To Kill a King” is far more focused. For the shorter period it treats, it’s also more historically accurate. Here, the story becomes a three-way circus, between Fairfax, one of English history’s most disregarded characters (and only a minor one in “Cromwell”), Cromwell himself, who was originally Fairfax’s deputy, and the king.
Mayhew’s script makes a convincing case for the switch in emphasis, and concentration on a tight, inner circle of characters, even though it stumbles at the end. A weak coda that tries to neatly resolve the Cromwell-Fairfax friendship smacks too much of modern-day “closure,” with even a voiceover by Fairfax that belatedly makes the whole pic a kind of personal reverie. Other quibbles include a failure to show fully the iniquities of the system the republicans were fighting, beyond occasional dialogue references, and the absence of scenes showing the texture of everyday life.
Helmer Mike Barker gives the actors plenty of room without letting the movie turn into a costume talkshow. Overall, pic recalls his 2000 Brit telemovie, “Lorna Doone,” which loosened up a literary classic, rather than his previous, mixed-success features, Brit road movie “The James Gang” and U.S.-set drama “Best Laid Plans.”
Scott makes a strong physical presence, and nicely underplays the conflicted Fairfax, but it’s Roth who slowly dominates the movie with a performance of cold, beady-eyed ruthlessness as the underdog who finally throws off the shadow of his more charismatic partner-in-revolution. He’s matched in that respect by the equally cool Everett as the king: their (literally) final meeting on the public scaffold near the end sees both thesps at the top of their game.
Sole distaffer Williams is a good female match for Scott’s virile presence, and carves a sizable role from her part as Anne. Supporting cast is peppered with strong perfs and character actors, notably Bolam as the oily Holles and Corin Redgrave as Anne’s royalist father.
English locations, including Hampton Court, are convincing. Given the concentration on character rather than battles or other setpieces, running time is just about right, with no flab in Guy Bensley’s editing.