More noise than signal

To Kill A King

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

To Kill A King picks up the narrative just after the effective end of military action in the Civil War, 1645’s Battle of Naseby where the forces loyal to Charles I were routed by Cromwell and Fairfax’s New Model Army. Proceedings dragged on until 1646, but the heavy losses sustained by the royalists as well as the discovery of the King’s private papers containing plans to bolster his forces with Irish papists and foreign mercenaries signaled not only the loss of the material war but that for the hearts and minds of the people.

King Charles was one of the old school of the monarchy, insisting on his family’s divine right to rule as he saw fit, rather than strictly in the interests of the people, or ‘scum’ as he would no doubt have put it. He was a terrible ruler, weak and ineffectual, with a lavish lifestyle necessitating continual and almost random taxation. Ill fated simultaneous wars with France and Spain lead to Parliament asking questions of him, and he answered by dissolving Parliament. The ‘Eleven Year Tyranny’ followed, eventually reinstating a Parliament, but the questionable actions continued, eventually leading to the Civil War.

If you’re going to pick fault with this film then it does play a little fast and loose with the historical accuracy aspect. Almost no timeframe is given to the events unless you can tie them up with your own knowledge of them. It seems as though the events detailed here take place over a few weeks, whereas the harsh reality of it is that it dragged on for years. Indeed, there was a brief second civil war in 1648, ending with a Parliamentary victory at Preston before the King’s eventual trial and execution in early 1649.

As a history lesson then, it’s not terrific. However, director Mike Barker knows that most people don’t want to pony up a fiver for a history lesson in a cinema, and simply want entertainment. As such To Kill A King concentrates on the relationships between Cromwell (Tim Roth), Fairfax (Dougray Scott) and Anne Fairfax (Olivia Williams), and also to a lesser extent King Charles (Rupert Everett).

Being of the gentry, the Fairfaxes are shown here as pretty chummy with the King, despite having being at war and all. Fairfax saved Cromwell’s life, and to repay him he swears to protect him, standing guard outside his tent. At the outset it’s hinted at that Cromwell may harbour a fancy for Anne Fairfax, but it’s shown in course to be good ol’ (and well-founded) suspicion that she is nothing like as devoted to the cause of removing the monarch as he is. How much of this is accurate, I must confess, I have no idea. It does, however, make a damn interesting tale.

Cromwell is a puritan, and wants rid of the monarchy completely. Fairfax and the Parliament, here represented by Baron Denzil Holles (James Bolam) would be happy with a period of exile, a written censure and redrafting of the laws relating King and parliament. Charles seems to look on all this as a minor inconvenience, still grandly dismissing his conquerors as lower life forms. This, and some good old fashioned bribery and double dealing with Holles leads to Cromwell declaring that Charles must be tried as a traitor.

Fairfax recently finds that his wife is expecting a child, and warns Holles in advance of the army’s arresting squad on the understanding that this would ensure his child would have at least one friend of influence in event of things going pear-shaped. This was probably done to alleviate Anne’s concerns, as Charles had been making threats about stripping the Fairfaxes of their titles and estates if he was returned to power. Anne is understandably concerned about the welfare of her as yet unborn child, and exerts her influence over Fairfax. She’s portrayed as a strong willed and capable woman, which somehow still seems remarkable in an era where female influence on anything of import (while obviously present) was seemingly never recorded. Indeed, when Cromwell informs Anne that he now sees that there are two generals in the household it’s entirely believable.

The trial of Charles is dealt with in great depth in the earlier (and far more sympathetic to Cromwell) movie Cromwell, but here it’s rather quickly glossed over. A pity, as it’s an interesting bit of constitutional wrangling. Charles refuses to acknowledge the validity of the court, and he has a solid case. Cromwell had purged parliament of all dissenters, and the House Of Commons has never been a judicature. Fairfax interprets Cromwell’s almost fanatical drive to purge the country of royalty as a madness, and refuses to sign the death warrant.

This is bolstered further after the King’s execution, with Cromwell randomly shooting street vendors selling Royal memorabilia in an act I can’t reconcile with any account I’m aware of. Indeed, the whole movie seems to have a strong royalist agenda. Cromwell is written as a borderline psychopath, never showing or even alluding to his bravery and undoubted military genius as leader of the cavalry. Charles is never seen in a terribly negative light, despite being a double dealing, despotic liar of a man. This will either frustrate or delight depending on your position on the monarchy, but as the whole movie slides more towards a soap opera and family drama than a accurate historical account I was more than happy to let it slide for the duration of the film.

Why so? Because it’s simply very, very well acted all round. Cromwell and Fairfax declare themselves to be as brothers, and it really isn’t hard to believe. Roth and Scott simply excel in their roles, Scott’s concerns and worries growing from their initial jubilation over their victory to ordering an assassination attempt as he fears Cromwell has turned into an uncontrollable monster. Roth owns the film, his performance as a man almost slavishly devoted to Fairfax and to his own cause, and the pain when he notices that Fairfax does not share those goals anymore is palpable.

Charles’ manipulation of Anne and Holles is a masterwork of slimery, and though they have greatly reduced roles in comparison with the above pair, Everett, Williams and Hollles also put in great performances, and the script makes sure to give them the lines necessary to deliver those performances. The settings are utterly believable, the dialogue believable and this helps no end in making the film believable, even if the events seem to be a little out of kilter with accepted versions. The only other flaw apart from this I can pick would be that I found the score a touch overly bombastic and intrusive, seeming just a touch too noticeable on a few scenes.

As the movie is essentially Fairfax’s story, it ends after Cromwell pushes him too far by declaring himself Lord Protector and dissolving an overly argumentative parliament which he saw as having no desire for reform. It’s in fact Fairfax who was going to kill Cromwell, but a speech Cromwell gives reassures him somewhat that Cromwell has the correct motives. That this didn’t actually happen is a mild inconvenience, but let’s not think of that too much. There is a reconciliation of sorts some years later, with Cromwell dying of some unnamed disease. This allows us to skip over a period when Cromwell attempted much but was obstructed greatly. Nevertheless, his actions left England in a strong position and had began the shift in political thinking to remove monarchs from positions of direct power, which wasn’t fully realised until the French started lopping off heads left, right and centre during their Revolution.

That the characters are overly simplified and the events not entirely accurate somehow doesn’t weaken this film too much. It’s a riveting 108 minutes, with the dynamic between the characters being so interesting and changing so subtly as events unfold that it’s simply a joy to watch. This is such an interesting (and open to interpretation) time in English history, casing influence over all of Europe that it’s difficult to believe so few movies touch upon it. This one however, is a beezer.