An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: To Kill A King (2003)
- Credit: Archant
Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different
To Kill A King; dir: Mike Barker; starring: Tim Roth, Dougray Scott, Rupert Everett, Olivia Williams, James Bolam, Corin Redgrave, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Adrian Scarborough. Cert 12 (2003)
It’s surprising to realise that for such an important and dramatic chapter in British history, the fall and execution of Charles I and the rise of Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians has rarely been portrayed on the big screen.
Apart from Ken Hughes’ Cromwell, released in 1970, the understated and nicely observed To Kill A King, funded by Film 4, appears to be the only other movie that looks at this turbulent period in our history.
It’s a complex tapestry of events and emotions, portrayed with a genuine sense of character by the all-star cast. You get a sense that the people involved in the events are vulnerable human beings with faults and flaws rather than all-knowing historical icons.
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Cromwell, certainly at the beginning, is shown to be just one of many seeking reform but after Charles is removed from the throne we get to see how human ambition, bitter resentment and puritanical religious ideology combine to turn him into a more extreme version of the monarch that he sought to replace.
But, this isn’t just a film about Cromwell, it’s about the cultural landscape that brought the country and its monarchy to a historic impasse.
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In Rupert Everett’s hands Charles I is a charismatic figure, he’s not in touch with the day-to-day existence of his subjects but in the great scheme of things he’s not a bad man and you certainly prefer being in his company than you do Tim Roth’s uptight Lord Protector.
The stated purpose of the English Civil War was to put the people and Parliament in charge of the nation’s future but director Mike Barker reveals that it is human frailties and the spectre of ambition gnawing away at your insides works like a cancer inside the most highly principled of men.
But, what makes To Kill A King such a special movie is the fact that it doesn’t dwell on big-set piece battles and historic snapshot moments in time. It’s far more interested in relationships and it is these which inform changes in history rather than large armies engaging one another on the battlefield half shrouded in gunsmoke.
It’s a good-looking film, the period detail is spot on, the photography is gorgeous and the script, although perceptive and revealing, never sounds like an illustrated history lesson.
You would assume that Charles I and Cromwell would be the central focus of the film, and although they are major players they are only half of a central quartet which is completed by Thomas Fairfax, played with resolve and understandable self-doubt by Dougray Scott, and his feisty wife Anne, given a powerful presence by Olivia Williams.
It’s great seeing top flight actors share a screen together because it encourages them all to dig deep because no-one wants to be over-shadowed. Despite the historic changes being shown in the film – as the film opens the civil war is coming to an end and Charles is under house arrest – this is a very personal film. It’s a movie about people doing what they think is right and yet their positions are such that they can’t all be right and it’s interesting for us as an audience to see where our sympathies lie.
Fairfax and Cromwell are feted as war heroes, they have become great friends during the campaign, however, once the fighting is over, cracks start to appear in their friendship. As Cromwell becomes increasingly hardline, the doubts that have plagued Fairfax start to grow.
As Charles starts to win over Parliament, Fairfax, backed by his wife, starts to remove himself from political life, stating that he is a soldier not a politician. Meanwhile, they are having make some big decisions. Do they execute a tyrant king or work with Parliament for a diplomatic solution?
Charles is not ready to abdicate his throne. In a deeply religious age he makes a powerful statement reminding his subjects that he has been appointed by God and who are they to defy God’s will.
It’s a wonderful, considered performance by Everett that gives his Charles a pathos and quiet authority which really makes us stop and think.
Of course, history lets us know what happens, but, the real revelation is how Roth’s Cromwell is totally corrupted by his role in the overthrow of the Crown. His jealousy of Fairfax’s popularity, followed by his subsequent fall and decline is a lesson to all who want to be a king.