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To Kill a King
IMDB Rating: 6.2/10 from 2,434 votes
Release: 16 May 2003 (UK) /

To Kill a King

Genre: Action, Adventure, Biography, Drama, Foreign, History
Director: Mike Barker,
Stars: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Synopsis: A recounting of the relationship between General Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, as they try to cope with the consequences of deposing King Charles I.

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Critic Reviews


It's amazing that, three decades after Antonia Fraser's great biography of Cromwell ("Cromwell: Our Chief of Men", 1973; out in a new edition, 2002), the old clichés and inaccuracies about him - ultimately derived from the post-Restoration character assassination satirized in "1066 and All That" - are still being as enthusiastically retailed as they are in this film.

That the dominant image of Cromwell is going to be of Ollie the psychopath is telegraphed in advance by the casting of Tim Roth to play him. Why people think this man can act has always been a mystery to me, but ever since "Reservoir Dogs" he has become so identified with the image of a psychopath that his mere presence is a sign that irrational violence is coming up soon. Right at the beginning of the film we are smacked over the head with this characterization when, before we have heard Cromwell speak a word, we see him barely being restrained from murdering a defenceless man. Later he organizes the torture and then murder of a prisoner, randomly shoots a street vendor in the leg, and ordains a painful execution for a would-be assassin in a fit of uncontrolled rage.

On the other hand, he loves his old mate Fairfax, spends hours writing up a proper constitutional settlement to give ordinary people the right to a fair trial, and shows an almost Woody-Allenesque unconfidence in his abilities as a military commander (comically, since even his enemies conceded his military genius). All these positive character traits are presumably thrown into the mix in order to give the semblance of roundedness, depth, or complexity to the characterization. The trouble is that the combination makes this Cromwell not complex, but simply incoherent. One cannot suspend disbelief in him. That's why, in this case, to say "it's a movie, not history" is not an answer to the criticism. It's precisely because it doesn't make sense as history that it doesn't work as a movie either.

The film is also notable for perpetuating the great Royalist lie that Charles I's death warrant was signed by the regicides before the verdict had been announced - indeed, before the trial had even begun. The document was certainly drawn up in advance (the defendant's guilt being as much a matter of public record as Goering's at Nuremberg), but there is no evidence that it was *signed* beforehand; on such a serious matter it's extremely unlikely the regicides would have opened themselves to the accusation of not observing the proper legal process (see the excellent page about the death warrant that I give the address for in the message boards). From the point of view of film-making, though, the most striking thing is how it totally squandered the dramatic opportunity of the trial itself - which took three days, incidentally, not, as it's presented here, three minutes, with people shouting "guilty" before any evidence has even been presented. As an opportunity to probe Charles's psychology, as he was presented with evidence of the damage his actions had caused, it was completely wasted.

Rupert Everett plays Charles brilliantly, and in the context of a better film it's a performance that would surely have drawn more of the plaudits that it deserves. His mixture of regal dignity, seductiveness, arrogance, and overweening self-belief make a compelling portrait (being true to life, these contradictions, unlike those assigned to Cromwell, actually make a coherent whole). Throughout all his conversations with his captors, his fundamental inability to accord their grievances the slightest legitimacy clearly illustrates how frustrating and ultimately fruitless the attempt to negotiate with him must have been, and why the conflict could only end with his death. Dougray Scott also brings gravitas and pathos to his role of Fairfax, and he sustains the tension of his conflicting loyalties well - even if that tension is historically bogus. As actors, he and Everett deserve to have been in a better film.

While Americans work the comparatively narrow seam of their history so intensively, it's a great shame that the Brits don't make more of some of the incomparably dramatic moments in their own. An even greater shame that, when they occasionally get the chance, it's fluffed with a script of such silliness and banality as this.

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