Review: The King’s Man
Isaac Bettridge takes The King’s Man to task for its misguided attempts at reckoning with some deeply sensitive, historical subject matter.
As a history student, I’m often asked what my opinion is concerning historical accuracy in films and TV. My usual answer is that the primary job of a film or TV show is entertainment, not accuracy (that’s what documentaries are for) and so I’m not opposed to creators bending history for the sake of compelling narratives. I do however have my limits and occasionally something comes along that, by either containing some particularly grievous inaccuracies or by poorly handling sensitive historical issues, deeply offends my sensibilities. This was the crux of my problem with The Greatest Showman, a film which valorises the exploitative, racist PT Barnum as a champion of the marginalised and it’s a big part of what I don’t like about The King’s Man, a boring, baffling and surprisingly offensive film.
This prequel to the Kingsman saga takes us back to WW1 and sees Ralph Fiennes’ dour Duke of Oxford, a pacifist nobleman trying to keep his son Conrad out of the trenches, gallivanting around the globe alongside his servants Polly and Shola (Gemma Arterton and Djimon Honsou respectively), attempting to put an end to the conflict. Opposing them are a group of shadowy conspirators whose ranks include such historical figures as Rasputin and Gavrilo Princip and who are working to stoke global conflict for reasons that are unclear from the start and somehow become even harder to understand as the movie goes on.
The film’s suggestion that the First World War was brought about not by competing nationalisms and imperial ambition but an angry Scottish man and his discount HYDRA is certainly an odd one but as mentioned I’m willing to suspend my disbelief on this kind of stuff as long as the movie does something fun or interesting with it.
SPOILER ALERT: it doesn’t. The King’s Man’s action sequences are mostly flat, choppy, directionless fare, with the only standout being a midpoint face-off between our heroes and Rhys Ifans’ gloriously camp Rasputin. And, really, he’s the only part of the film I feel comfortable praising unreservedly, certainly when our actual lead antagonist is too busy barking at his underlings from the shadows to be given much in the way of action or character development. The eventual reveal of his true identity is one of the most underwhelming in cinematic history, made even worse by how much of the film hinges on our engagement with solving the mystery.
This pattern of extensive build-up undercut by underwhelming payoff also applies to the film’s attempts to engage with heavy themes like colonialism and the horrors of war; themes handled so haphazardly that it feels less like a stinging condemnation of British imperialism and more like a particularly violent episode of Downton Abbey.
The film’s approach to WW1 is similarly clumsy and offensive: extended trench sequences aim for the grim spectacle of 1917 but lack that film’s style and weight.
The film opens by showing us a British Boer War-era concentration camp but then subsequently makes their principal architect, Lord Kitchener, a central ally to the good guys alongside King George V, whose presence really undermines the idea of Kingsman as an “independent intelligence agency”. In a casting stunt meant to illustrate the pettiness and irrationality of aristocratic rule, the British King is played by Tom Hollander, who also plays Russian Tsar Nicholas and German Kaiser Wilhelm, but when George is positioned largely as a hero whilst the other two are gullible warmongers, the attempt falls flat, simply coming across as xenophobic.
The film’s approach to WW1 is similarly clumsy and offensive: extended trench sequences aim for the grim spectacle of 1917 but lack that film’s style and weight. One genuinely engaging dramatic sequence towards the end is quickly undermined by the bizarre suggestion that one of our main characters was the true author of some of the most famous WW1 poetry. To illustrate: imagine, for just a moment, if Inglorious Basterds contained a scene where the ‘Bear Jew’ turned out to be the real author of Anne Frank’s diary.
I wouldn’t have expected much nuanced commentary on the horrors of war and empire from a franchise whose last entry featured Elton John fighting robot dogs had it not been for the fact that, at several points, the film all but grabs you by the ears and screams in your face ‘WE’RE DOING COMMENTARY!’ Throughout, the film makes frequent overtures towards addressing the myriad terrors of British imperialism but ultimately culminates in a bunch of aristocrats, arm-in-arm with the King, heroically defeating zee Germans, all the while their servants bang on about how great they are. It all leaves a bad taste.
Speaking of aristocrats, Ralph Fiennes’ Duke of Oxford, a man so posh that an extended sequence of his putting on a bowler hat is played exactly like the suiting up scene in Iron Man, is a capable enough action lead but even this great actor’s best efforts can’t imbue his character with real depth. At the same time, Arterton and Honsou are crammed into ‘strong female character’ and ‘black best friend’ roles and told to jolly well stay there if they know what’s good for them.
What exactly did people like about the first Kingsman anyway? For me, it was how fresh it felt: original among a crowded landscape of reboots and sequels (granted, it was based on a comic but it bore almost no resemblance to it) with a unique sense of style and fronted by a then-unknown Taron Egerton who quickly proved himself among the industry’s most capable rising stars. Seven years on, however, it has become just one more mega-franchise, full of self-conscious nods to its own history that it doesn’t have the pedigree to pull off and sorely lacking the youthful dynamism of its previous leads.
A third and allegedly final Egerton-fronted installment is on its way next year, with the same creative team once again taking the helm. Let’s hope they learn their lesson from the last two, or this franchise risks becoming just as stale, regressive and irrelevant as the aristocracy to whom it is so heavily indebted.