To Kill a King Review
Mike Barker's sumptuous take on one of England's most pivotal and far-reaching historical episodes - the devastating removal of King Charles I from the thrown and Oliver Cromwell's revolutionary dreams for a powerful new republican England - is not exactly the type of subject that cries out for attention. The English Civil War and its ongoing repercussions are the stuff of re-enactors' weekend make-believe and not usually the platform with which to weave engrossing, audience-enticing spectacle. Yet, despite any stuffy intellectualist criticisms that you may feel inclined to level against it, his 2003 movie To Kill A King is truly gripping, emotionally overwrought stuff. Taking his cue from the intimate saga of two stalwart war-heroes and best friends - Dougray Scott's Lord General Thomas Fairfax and his loyal deputy General Oliver Cromwell (Tim Roth) - and the severe conflict of ideology and duty that consumes and separates them during the turbulent years after their successful campaign to oust the corrupt monarchy led by Rupert Everett's fantastically arrogant King Charles, Barker creates a wonderfully tense political maelstrom that sees conversations, snarled accusations and scheming paranoia decide the fate of a freshly emerging nation.
But what sounds like so much classroom pontificating becomes a luridly gripping thriller that sees old wounds dressed and then re-opened and gouged anew and fresh betrayals consume and burn once noble personalities until only obsession and persecution remain. His film, written by Jenny Mayhew, kaleidoscopes the momentous events that took place during this unprecedented time to, instead, move in from the bigger scale and focus on the backroom deals and broken alliances that lead to revolution. But it is not a film about battles. We may commence in the bloody wake of Naseby, the scene of the Civil War's last and most decisive victory - broken and severed bodies are lingered-upon as they are heaped on burial mounds - but the story will swap swords and muskets for venomous vitriol and poisoned puns. Cromwell's witch-hunt of the Parliamentarian conspirators, led by James Bolam's twitchy, nervous Holles, sets loyalties on the sword-edge, obligation and duty pushed to their extremes and devotion transformed into festering obsession. The story has been filmed before, and with considerably greater visual sweep - the Richard Harris-starring Cromwell, for instance - but the interesting and refreshing thing about this take is precisely its scaling-down of the tale. The film feels stylised and slightly offbeat, its funnelling of the grander aspects of the saga not so much diminishing them as using them as a broad canvas across which a precarious love-triangle can dance. Most critics responded with indifference to the film, those that weren't openly hostile to it, that is, and I find this perplexing. Barker and Mayhew place their tale within the context of the political upheaval and use the complex relationships between the leads as the possible springboard from whence their motivations arise. Certainly nothing other than the intense and moving love between Tom and his wife, played by the fragile-faced Olivia Williams, is without multiple shades of grey, dubious mood swings and Machiavellian conniving. And To Kill A King cleverly and unusually weaves a sort of doom-laden journey of jealousy and betrayal that I, for one, found highly engaging.
Historically accurate, it may not be. But emotionally relevant it most definitely is ... and this is the element that gives the film such a searing, lusty vigour.
“We weren't meant for this, Thomas. Our families have always defended kings.”
Bringing the Fairfaxes to life are two performers that I don't normally rate, yet both simply excel here. Dougray Scott struts with confidence at the start, his heroic Tom Fairfax the veritable Maximus of his day - loved by his troops and revered by the people. He knows that Oliver Cromwell marches in his shadow, somewhat, but is charitable and benign enough to always lend a helping hand. Their bond has been forged in combat and their aspirations for a new England, free from a corrupt monarchy are shared. It is obviously the differing degrees to which they are prepared to go in order to see this dream come to fruition that sets them on a collision course. Scott luxuriates beneath a sweeping mane of “cavalier”-esque hair and brings extreme commitment to the trait known as brooding. His relationship with Lady Anne Fairfax is monumentally touching, but will be sorely tested by events and circumstances. Olivia Williams, though, is the one who truly evokes the emotions. Her characterisation may be a touch too anachronistic for the period - she is, at least, as strong-willed and opinionated as either Tom or Oliver to the endless troubling of both - and her mannerisms and attitude far more advanced than this society would have fostered within her. But Williams ignites the screen with strength, honour and an unshakable belief. That she does all this whilst still remaining an alluring figure of highly-charged romantic interest is the thing that almost has her stealing the show entirely from under the menfolk's proud noses. Instigator, conspirator, lover and loyalist - Lady Fairfax, perhaps by virtue of not having access to a sword or a Flintlock pistol , establishes the conundrums of a torn society with more accessibility than the preening, knee-jerk reactionaries who are wrestling with the real seat of power. Scott and Williams work well together and there are two scenes in particular that test the limits of their love which are profoundly moving.
“What moves you most, Ma'am? Your love for Tom or your hatred of me?”
Cromwell gives Tim Roth plenty to chew on and even if his occasionally dodgy accent goes awry and his voice somehow fails to carry across the upturned heads during some of the more crowded scenes, he makes the most of his aggrieved crusade as the soon-to-be Lord Protector. But, even with his penchant for villainy, he still makes Cromwell a very sympathetic character. Yes, he may plot and scheme and torture and execute, but to his way of thinking he is only punishing those whom he believes to be traitors. Of course, the same can probably be said for most dictators, but with his New Model Army and broadly optimistic ideology for a prosperous England, his motives are still fairly noble. This is where a story like To Kill A King enjoys fogging the divide between good and bad. In such a volatile and paranoid environment, the issues become clouded and the greater good often gets confused by personal slights and behind-the-scenes skulduggery whether it is real or imaginary. Roth does not exude menace. He exudes a twisted form of nobility, instead, that has you pity his collapsed endeavours and his violent tantrums all the more because, deep down, he is trying to do the right thing. His suppressed love for Lady Fairfax has undoubtedly taken a huge toll on him over the years and the fact that he has been unsuccessful at keeping it hidden, even from Tom, only belittles the Puritanical tyrant still further. Respect and awe for his friend and pseudo-rival eat away at his confidence continually and only when the nation's real hero begins to veer from his own self-righteous path does his jealousy start to manifest itself with dangerous implications for all concerned. However, I think that he could have done more with this and there are times when his self-delusions and grandiose machinations reveal him to be just as petty and petulant as Joaquin Phoenix's Commodus in Gladiator and, as a result, somewhat less of an opponent for the much more assured and confident Thomas Fairfax. A wall-clutching outburst at a pivotal revelation towards the end of the film is marvellously judged, though, Roth combining utter disbelief, shock and rage all in one spectacularly hair-trigger moment. Roth can't help urbanising Cromwell but it still makes for an intriguing take on the man and to his credit he still manages to manifest anger and love whilst remaining totally calm, with little more than a forlorn look in his eyes and a faintly beatific smile as he finally takes stock of a friendship and a dream that he can't quite comprehend have actually remained in place despite all the grief and pain that have gone on.
“Tom fights in the field. These corridors are new to him.”
The sets and the cinematography totally belie the modest budget and the talky TV-style approach. Filmed in what look, for the most part, like genuine locations (such as Dover Castle, Hampton Court Palace, Divinity School Oxford and various stately homes) for much of the time, Eigil Bryld spins his camera around enormous rooms, mile-long corridors, and labyrinthine interiors, whisking us through the period intrigue with glorious gliding photography and immaculate framing of crowds, meetings and torch-lit conspiracies. A road lined with the hanged; courtyards and squares filled with the ragged peasantry of the dark times; sumptuous sitting rooms juxtaposed with the spartan quarters afforded the deposed King - the enormity of the walls surrounding him magnified once their majestic paintings have been removed - and fanciful coach-rides across crisp green countryside all look wonderfully composed and decorous despite gloomy skies and chilly shadows. One amazing shot follows Tom as he searches his vast house for Lady Anne, the camera scuttling in his wake as he strides down corridors and flings open doors in his anxiety. Yet, for all this energy and liberal cinematic sweep, the film feels closely-reined and small. We travel the country, but when one mansion-house looks much the same as another we feel no appreciation of distance. In earlier times, this would have had enormous battalions of extras and massive processions stretching across the screen but Barker does surprisingly well with a screenplay that, when all said and done, could have merely been enacted upon a stage.
“So, is it true - men who have been to war have more steel in their blades?”
Another major asset to the film is the simply magnificent score from Richard G. Mitchell. Again, this is something that raises the small and innately theatrical telling to something altogether more grand and powerful. Director Barker allows the music a heavy presence throughout the film and To Kill A King boasts several stunning themes that create atmosphere, mood and, above all else, a lush romanticism that the likes of John Barry, who had scored historical epics in much the same way, would have been proud of. The theme for the Fairfaxes (called much the same thing on the awesome CD soundtrack) is absolutely wonderful - full of poignancy, beauty and the fear that threatens to splinter their relationship. Haunting use of the Wells Cathedral Choir and an immense church organ signify the momentous and the tragic, whilst harps, clarinets, French Horns and Shakuhachi evoke dark deeds with shrill bursts and swooning strings carry the emotions even when the movie occasionally lapses in tension. Without a doubt, this score was one of the better ones of 2003 and it holds the film together with intensity and melancholy in equal measure.
“One half of the nation already hates you. Now you make enemies of the rest!”
Touching, eloquent and unusual, To Kill A King did not fare well upon its limited theatrical run. The critics seemed harsh and, indeed, the subject matter reaches a period that not many people these days show much interest in. But the story is an important one and although I usually abhor tedious costume dramas that don't feature sword 'n' shield combos and copious limb-lopping, I found Barker's film excellently stylish and totally absorbing. A lot of Cromwell's more fascinating traits may have been glossed-over, or ignored altogether, but this is pared-down and often quirky tale that places the core relationships in more prevalence than the societal swing-shifts that were going on around them. Indeed, Mayhew's script stakes a claim that it was, in fact, these very awkward and delicate relationships that instigated much of the larger schemes that took place. It is not for everyone, but To Kill A King is never less than entertaining and it is always great to see actors digging deep into their characters, particularly a couple that had never really shone for me until now. Recommended for those who enjoy a bit of psychology mixed in with their history.