THE KING’S MAN [2021]

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Directed by:
Written by: , , ,
Starring: , , ,

UK/USA

IN CINEMAS NOW

RUNNING TIME: 130 mins

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera

In 1902, Orlando, the Duke of Oxford, loses his wife Emily while working for the Red Cross in South Africa during the Boer War, causing the sworn pacifist to vow that his son Conrad will never fight in a war. Twelve years later, Orlando is the head of a spy network dedicated to protecting the United Kingdom and the British Empire from the approaching Great War, but can only watch in horror as his friend, Archduke Ferdinand, is assassinated. Joined by Polly and Shola, Orlando takes command of a secret network of spies in domestic service roles, but the mysterious Shepherd is looking to upset global order, sending a team that includes Grigori Rasputin, Mata Hari and Erik Jan Hanussen to wreck havoc. Perhaps Orlando’s son may have to join the fight after all….

2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service and 2017’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle constituted a rather fresh franchise so far, even if the latter was a touch bloated and maybe went a bit too far with the goofiness; but what with the James Bond series exuding self-importance and coming on rather heavy and serious, a spy franchise that allows itself a fair bit of goofiness and is primarily concerned with having fun [despite its violence far exceeding any 007 film, and by the way where’s the ’18’ rated version of the first one, we’re still waiting] ought to be treasured. Saying that though, this third instalment contains less humour; there’s of course some,  but not that much, and I guess that was the right decision for screenwriters Matthew Vaughn and Karl Gajdusek to make seeing as they also get us to spend a considerable amount of time in the trenches of World War 1. For this prequel set around a century earlier, Vaughn and Gajdusek are nothing if not ambitious, daring the viewer to put up with many tonal and even stylistic shifts in an epic tale that mingles together revisionist history along with some actual history, that deals as much with political manoeuvering at the highest level as it does with grief on the personal level, yet paradoxically features action scenes that are generally smaller scale than the sometimes genuinely world-encompassing stuff we saw in the first two films. They certainly took some chances with this one, far more than they did in the second movie, and the result could have been a dreary mess, but somehow they pulled it off, resulting in a much more gratifying exercise than some of the big action blockbusters that came out this year.

So we begin with a pan over a Western-style landscape and a wagon train traveling in the distance, only for the text to inform us that we’re actually in South Africa. The Duke of Oxford, Orlando, his wife Emily, and their young son Conrad are visiting an aid camp during the Boer War. Orlando is working for the Red Cross, something that we later find out is due to guilt for participating in British colonialism and slaughtering people who were merely defending their country. Well, this is 2021 so we just have to get some anti-colonial messaging in there; thankfully it’s only reduced to one scene. I don’t actually disagree with the sentiment, but regular readers will know my hatred of having the same themes rammed down our throats in production after production. Anyway, more to the point is, what are wife and kid doing there anyway? Surely it’s a bit dangerous? Emily is killed during a Boer sniper attack on the camp, causing Orlando to be so insistent that Conrad should never enlist that he even goes to good old Herbert Kitchener, the leader of the British war effort and the first of quite a few real life historical personages who will turn up. Twelve years later and things are hotting up with Europe the epicentre. The man masterminding all this lives on a fort on top of a mountain, barking out orders in a Scottish accent at his underlings whom he’ll kill on a whim if he so desires. So one of those baddies that you wonder why anyone works for, then. We don’t see his face, so we know that we’ll get a [hopefully] shocking reveal much later. He’s trying to pit the German, Russian and British empires against each other, and has a special beef with the English who frequently pestered Scotland. Actually not everything is entirely clear here,  but this is fairly common if you’re out to take over the world and also mad, so let’s not get bothered by details like that.

Thankfully Orlando is forming his spy network. “British Intelligence listens through key holes, we get inside”. His two main recruits are nanny Polly and manservant Shola. I suppose it makes sense that Orlando, due to his beliefs, would have an African servant so highly placed, but Polly’s opening scene where she talks back rudely to her boss doesn’t ring true; yet another example of modern attitudes being placed into a period piece. Conrad and Orlando ride with Archduke Franz Ferdinand in a parade through Sarajevo, Bosnia, and it’s Conrad who saves the Archduke from a bomb thrown by one of The Shepherd’s assassins. Later, however, the same guy succeeds in fatally shooting Ferdinand and his wife. Quick response is needed, and the first big mission is to Moscow where we get the best section of the film. Tsar Nicholas is being manipulated by the ‘mad’ monk Rasputin, who’s poisoning his little boy and says he’ll cure him when Nicholas promises to leave the war. It’s always fun when Russia’s greatest love machine is on the screen, and we’ve had some great portrayals, if not yet the definitive version of his story. Rhys Ifans is terrific in the role, almost matching Tom Baker and Christopher Lee, absolutely exuding the mystery, the authority and the charisma that allowed this debauched man of god to reach such a high status. Suspense and the off-colour sexual humour of this series builds as Conrad is meant to seduce Rasputin into accepting a rendezvous with a poisoned cake, but Rasputin prefers his dad, leading to him furiously licking Orlando’s leg wound, sending the Duke into ecstasy. Battle takes over, with Rasputin a super skilled martial arts expert in an excellently choreographed brawl. What’s strange about all this is that it’s scarcely crazier than the legend of Rasputin’s death. He was plied with cakes, wine and tea all laced with poison, beaten and shot, but actually died of drowning. Well, that’s the legend; accounts differ, but the gist is always – Rasputin was one tough mutha.

The Shepherd responds by recruiting Vladimir Lenin so he and his Bolsheviks can overthrow the Tsar and thereby get Russia out of the war, and our foursome has to journey somewhere else to stop evil from happening. Well, actually threesome – Conrad decides to disobey his father’s orders and joins the men at the front. It’s hard to be shocked these days by ‘war is hell’ stuff because we’ve seen so much of it, but Vaughn gives it a good shot, setting the scene with an impressive transition where the French countryside becomes No Man’s Land before focusing on Conrad who’s actually swapped places with another soldier. An accidental shooting sends Conrad on a mission that’s virtually suicidal, and we’re given it all; awful chaos, crazy heroism, lucky flares, vicious close quarter fights which are more hard hitting than any of the mayhem that Vaughn has shown us before in the series – and with no humour either. Some may feel that all this belongs in a different film, but I feel that Vaughn and Gajdusek are trying to make us think about screen violence and whether it should be ‘fun’ like he generally likes to show, elsewhere. While the use of, unexpected deaths of likeable characters is clearly a hallmark of this series and a most praise worthy one, Vaughn seems to properly mature with this movie, and doesn’t seem to find it that difficult to restrain himself. Despite the enormous scale of his plot, he’s relaxed enough to give us a relatively low-key climax influenced by the one in For Your Eyes Only, though of course with good rear projection [something the Bonds curiously never really licked until comparatively recently] which allows us to truly squirm at some horribly vertiginous shots and an out of control airplane. Sadly though much of the CGI is merely average, a feature of this series though not just this series; I couldn’t believe how substandard some of the digital stuff was in Spiderman: No Way Home.

Yes, actual history is often tweaked into half-truths so it fits into the film’s narrative, but it’s reasonably well thought through. Of course we know that, for example, King George V probably didn’t change his Teutonic family name, Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, to Windsor, as a reaction to anti-German sentiment, but it works in the context of the film. And maybe suggesting that Wilfred Owen’s famous poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ was actually written by Conrad without saying how it got into Owen’s hands is rather lazy. Still, Tom Hollander, expanding on a gift for comic timing he’s already shown as that web slinger, gives an hilarious threeseome of a performance, as the cousins Tsar Nicholas, Kaiser Wilhelm and George V. After Rasputin bites the bullet, we’re still left with Mata Hari and Eric Jan Hanussen who are advising and manipulating. Mata actually doesn’t feature nearly enough; you’d think that Vaughan and Gadjusek would have thought up some outrageous sexual shenanigans for her to be involved in. This means that Valerie Pachner doesn’t get much of an opportunity to get her teeth into the part. However, Daniel Bruhl is given plenty of time to exude evil as Hanussen, a fascinating historical character not known as well as he should be. He was an Austrian Jewish charlatan [or maybe not] into many things such as astrology and hypnotism who was a major influence during both Weimer Germany and the beginnings of Nazi Germany, who may have molded Adolph Hitler into the great speaker that he became.

Djimon Hounsou as Shola for once gets a lot to do, but it’s really the 60-year old Ralph Fiennes who holds it all together, displaying the suave style he’s shown before, perhaps starting with the non-Marvel The Avengers [whatever you think of it, and I actually like it, you must admit that Fiennes is good in that role], but also being given many opportunities to show what a damn good actor he is, showing emotion with restrained power. There hasn’t been a role as good as this in some time for him. The music score from Matthew Margeson and Dominic Lewis is more diverse than the previous two film’s scores [which weren’t quite good enough for what they were supporting], while also worthy of mention are Michele Clapton’s costume design, which stylise the familiar outfits of the period just slightly to match the overall aesthetic while scaling back the elegant Kingsman outfits as per the times. I thoroughly enjoyed The King’s Man [lazy title though], though I have a hunch that some viewers will be startled in the wrong way by how serious much of it is. It appears to have slightly underperformed at the box office, which is a darn shame. We need franchises like this that are able to take such risks in only their third instalment while also resisting the urge to tone things down for a family-friendly rating.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

About Dr Lenera 3121 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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