“The King’s Choice” is a World War II drama, and as soon as you hear that — well, okay, as soon as I heard it — the reaction it inspires may be something along the lines of: Really? Again? Yet the movie, which is Norway’s short-listed Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language Film (it’s actually a co-production of Norway and Ireland), is nothing if not original. It has a few traumatic and bedazzling scenes of combat, but mostly it’s about the backroom bureaucratic gamesmanship of war. It re-enacts a celebrated moment of national defiance, and the vision it puts forth is at once ennobling and, frankly, a little eccentric. Outside of Norway, where it has already opened, the prospects look limited, though a pinch of Oscar love could always help its chances.
The movie is set over the course of three days in April 1940, and everything that happens during those three days could, theoretically, be summed up in a one-sentence intertitle: “Hitler’s forces sweep through Norway, securing all major cities.” The Nazis v. Norway: Not much suspense to that outcome. And not much need for heavy artillery either. In “The King’s Choice,” the Norwegians — sovereign, peace-loving, officially neutral — don’t begin to have the military strength to stand up to their invaders. They’re such a courtly, civilized nation that they don’t just lack the firepower; they lack the ability to even understand what they’re up against. Of course, it makes sense that one might not have a full apprehension of that in 1940, when Hitler’s barbarism was just getting rolling.
In “The King’s Choice,” the Germans present themselves like the Mob, offering “protection” for Norway (they claim that the British have mined the local waters). But what Hitler is really after is the nation’s strategic coastline, and its reserves of iron ore. Most countries, placed in Norway’s position, would be hammering out the politics of surrender, trying to save as many lives as possible. But King Haakon VII (Jesper Christensen), the monarch of Norway since 1905 (though officially only a figurehead), finds himself possessed by a moral quandary: Should he hand over his country to the Nazis on a silver platter of “peace,” allowing Norway to be ruled by an odious collaborator named — with poetic perfection — Quisling? Or should he continue to push back against the invasion, even if it’s not entirely clear what pushing back actually means?
“The King’s Choice” is a talky movie with a spark of propulsion to it. Early on, there’s a stunning combat sequence in which a German battleship approaches, and a Norwegian general, looking like he’s still fighting World War I, orders the cannon fire to begin. The Norwegians actually sink the German ship, but what we sense — and what the Norwegians apparently don’t — is that a dozen more battleships are coming. By not giving in peacefully, the Norwegians have “stood their ground,” but really, they’ve only enflamed the Nazis’ will to conquer.
Part of the historical fascination — and the stiff-upper-lip, head-in-the-sand Scandinavian flintiness — of “The King’s Choice” is that the film spends nearly every one of its 133 minutes presuming that King Haakon had some honest sway in his country’s destiny. It’s an idea that has been woven into Norwegian mythology. They would not go softly into that good night! (The movie could have been called “Surrender Hard.”) Erik Poppe, the Norwegian music video, commercial, and documentary veteran who directed the film, has told a story designed to stoke the patriotic passion of its targeted national audience. “The King’s Choice” is intricately told, and it’s certainly got an Oscar-friendly title, yet for those outside of Norway it may prove a dislocating experience: a war drama built entirely around a symbolic gesture. The Danish actor Jesper Christensen, who is one of the film’s producers, plays Haakon with stalwart precision: craggy and reserved, unsmiling beneath his sodden Victorian mustache, gentle with his grandchildren, always with the weight of Norway on his shoulders. Yet the film never pushes very far past his politician’s façade.
The most interesting character in “The King’s Choice” is the man appointed to deal with him: Kurt Braüer, a Nazi envoy who turns out to have torn loyalties. Karl Markovics, with his haunted face (he’s like a neurotically severe Christoph Waltz), plays him as a conflicted occupier who actually wants to preserve Norwegian “neutrality.” He’s a German who doesn’t seem to fully grasp what his country is up to, that they’re trying to take over the world — even when, in a scene that jolts the audience, he is speaking on the phone to his superior in Berlin, and another voice comes on the phone: It’s Hitler, barking orders about how he wants this invasion to go (with no more fuss). It’s as if Braüer were being chewed out by his CEO, yet he’s the kind of weasel who wants to please everyone, even the people he’s capturing.
“The King’s Choice” plays fast and loose with some of the information it gives us. It implies that any delay in surrendering will bring on massive casualties — yet despite the King’s delays, and the whole obstinate honor of his nature, the bloodbath remains mercifully limited. An end title informs us that Haakon’s actions became a defining moment for the Norwegian spirit. Yet it’s not at all clear how those three days in 1940 represented anything more than a way for a country that was being steamrolled by brutes to convince itself it had saved face. The Norwegians weren’t willing collaborators, but that was the whole horror of their predicament: They never did have a choice.