King's Game


Reviewed by: Themroc

King’s Game opens as the chairman of the Danish Central party is critically injured in a freak car accident. With a general election which the party were expected to win approaching, a power struggle for succession begins even before the chairman is pronounced dead. Rather than suggest that the accident was an assassination attempt, the film instead examines the ruthlessness with which political operatives seize on the opportunity it presents them with and then manipulate a pliant media in order to further their own careers and agendas.

Caught up in all this is Ulrik Torp, an improbably naïve, earnest and healthily ambitious young newshound who is assigned by his editor to cover the unfolding events partly, we later discover, because of his inexperience, and partly because, unbeknownst to him, his father had a reputation whilst a government minister as a slippery political operative. Soon Torp finds himself being used by rival members of the party as they jockey for position.

Based on the best-selling Danish novel of the same name by a former spin doctor for the country’s Conservative party, King’s Game is a supposed to be prescient and damning indictment of the cynical and mutually parasitic relationship that exists between a democratic county’s political class and its media. What’s most disappointing then, given that this is an insider’s account, is that while the film functions as a reasonably taut and efficient thriller, it’s less than convincing as a piece of serious political drama.

For a start, the central conceit (that the media will knowingly abdicate their responsibility to report the facts objectively because they are under the thumb of their political sources) is simply an expedient misrepresentation of what is an extremely tangled and complicated relationship based on mutual exploitation and dependency. Media management or “spin” while often duplicitous, is also a necessary means for politicians to defend themselves against an often hostile media, particularly in an era of 24 hour rolling television news. Meanwhile, although the media will often parrot anonymously briefed propaganda about party in-fighting if it is in their short-term interests to do so, it is by its very nature far too fickle a beast to allow itself to become the plaything of the political class. Part of King’s Game’s credibility gap arises from the fact that these grey areas and contradictions are neither explored nor even properly acknowledged.

This kind of over-simplification may be partly in the interests of making the plot comprehensible to as broad an audience as possible. It’s certainly much easier to follow than most political drama. On the other hand, it may be partly that a novel written by a former spin doctor will inevitably exaggerate the importance of that particular role. Either way, both in terms of both construction and characterisation, the broad generalisations the narrative falls back on end up being self-defeating.

It’s a shame because the plot initially faces Torp with a potentially interesting moral problem. Faced with the brutal and seemingly endemic corruption of the political and media arenas, he finds himself momentarily trapped between conforming at the cost of his principles or conducting a probably futile rebellion at the cost of his reputation and career.

But having set the dilemma up, the film fudges it. It settles instead for the type of dismayingly conventional moral certainty which only exists in patronising melodrama. Confronted with his decision, Torp altruistically subordinates his careerist ambitions, and it is a measure of the film’s indulgence in wish-fulfilment that not only is his stand successful, but that the personal cost is negligible. Lest there be any remaining doubt about the story’s moral compass, a mentally ill innocent caught up in the machinations takes his own life.

By resorting to such crude and manipulative plotting and by refusing to contemplate either Torp’s corruption or even examine his own Darwinian streak, King’s Game jettisons any claims to importance or serious socio-political comment in favour of trite populism. A story about the corruption of the democratic process becomes a predictable fantasy about integrity and perseverance defeating the ruthless pursuit of self-interest.

To this end, the characters are sketched so broadly as to border on caricature. The story’s villains all wear their villainy on their sleeve while those characters with any remaining decency are intimidated into despondent silence. In particular, Erik Dreier, the Central party’s sinister chairman-in-waiting is such a transparently charmless bully that his seniority in a profession that depends in no small part on charisma and diplomacy simply defies plausibility. That his half-baked plan to outwit both the country’s entire electorate and the majority of his colleagues is frustrated by an inexperienced young hack armed with nothing more than a vague sense of self-righteous outrage is testament to how unconvincing and schematic the film’s plotting allows itself to become. None of this would be too much of a problem if the film was simply pitched as a pot-boiler. But what’s annoying about King’s Game is how seriously it takes itself. It’s all colour-timed to give it that intrusive blue-ish hue that American directors like Michael Mann appear to like so much and which has become a lazy sort of cinematographic shorthand for Cool And Intelligent Drama. As if to reinforce the point, the final denouement, which takes place on live TV, is staged off-screen. In its place we see the muted reactions of the film’s characters as they take this final development on board from their respective sofas. In a better film, it might have worked, but at the end of something quite this conventional, it seems pretentious.

A final point worth noting is that for all its self-importance and superficial radicalism, King’s Game is a fundamentally conservative film. Despite the ostensible criticism of the establishment and the status quo, it nevertheless depicts a system that, although flawed and corrupt in places, is essentially self-correcting. By tying its narrative up in a neat and tidy bundle at the end (the tacked-on and slightly smug irony of the coda is amusing rather than shocking), it resists even an implicit suggestion that reform is required. Taken as a piece of disposable entertainment, it’s a diverting, professional and reasonably enjoyable film. Taken as anything more significant than that, it’s a dissatisfying failure.

Reviewed on: 22 Sep 2005
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King's Game packshot
Reporters uncover political corruption before the Danish elections.
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Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Writer: Nikolaj Arcel, Rasmus Heisterberg, based on the novel by Niels Krause-Kjoer

Starring: Anders W Berthelsen, Soren Pilmark, Nastja Arcel, Nicolas Bro, Lars Mikkelsen, Ulf Pilgaard, Charlotte Munck, Lars Brygmann, Helle Fagralid, Jesper Langberg

Year: 2004

Runtime: 107 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: Denmark


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