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King's Game
cast: Anders W. Berthelsen, Jesper Langberg, Soren Pilmark, Ulf Pilgaard, and Nicholas Bro

director: Nikolaj Arcel

107 minutes (12) 2004
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Dogwoof DVD Region 2 retail
[released 7 December]

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Ulrik Torp (Anders Berthelsen), is an up and coming journalist, and son of a respected former minister. After a car crash in which the Centre Party leader is left fighting for his life 10 days before a critical election, the writer is unexpectedly fed a front-page story by parliamentary insider Schou (Lars Mikkelsen). A charity, it appears, has mislaid millions in a failed attempt to build an overseas hospital and the trail of responsibility can be traced back very close to home. Following praise for his early scoop, Torp's naivety becomes apparent as he discovers that his big story was leaked to discredit the female politician Lone (Nastje Arcel), most likely to succeed to power. His informant Schou is working for Dreier (Erik Pilmark), an ambitious Centre Party politician also hoping to take over, and not above using the media's hunger for fabricated scandal to end Lone's chances. Risking his career and reputation, Torp teams up with disreputable and cynical hack Moll (Nicholas Bro) to bring Dreier down and, as he does so, learns the pitfalls and dangers of playing 'the King's Game'...

Without a single car chase, gunfight or romantic encounter between the principals throughout its 100-minute length, this is a film that smacks of low-key, tense authenticity - which is not surprising as the novel on which it is based, Niels Krause-Kj�r's Kongekabale, was written shortly after the writer quit his job as spin-doctor for the Conservative party in Denmark. I don't know what the Danish political scene is like, but British viewers will certainly feel right at home in the murky world on show here, full of secrecy, spin and jostling for power, where parties desperate for re-election are wracked by internal doubts and power struggles, the obliging media pawns in the process.

Lone is a politician with a strong environmental brief and it is with she that we feel most sympathy - not necessarily because of her likely legislative agenda, but because of her underhand treatment by enemies. The ruthless, rung-climbing Dreier clearly has other priorities for the party, and although he goes through the unconvincing motions of suggesting a coalition for when he assumes charge, he soon reveals the cold facts of political life immediately when alone with one of his opponents.

Full of committee room angst, paper trails and anxious phone calls, Arcel's first film has few dull moments while all the performances, slightly glum in the fashion familiar to those who watch a lot of Nordic drama, hold the attention. Ironically the strengths of King's Game are also its main weaknesses as, whilst reasonably gripping and claiming to be based around true events, the unfolding story is never earthshaking enough to keep one on the edge of the chair. Although set ostensibly during the middle of the election campaign, much of the wider political world is marginalised by the script, what is presumably nationwide news kept down to a few top level principals and key players. There is none of the intimidating fatal razzmatazz of say, The Parallax View (1974), in which the greater game played by the party machine and vested interests is made clear. The result is that we see events somewhat in isolation; and while Dreier's machinations are to be condemned and defeated, they are quickly enough unravelled while the identity of the chief villain is known early on.

At the end of the day it's a conspiracy that's small beer compared to political plots of the past. Try as they might too, Moll and Trop (who "sound like a bad rock band," as one says of their unlikely, downbeat association) are no Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the investigating superstars of All The Presidents Men (1976). An unlikely duo from the start, there is little spark between them, other than growing appreciation and respect, this while the exact relationship of Moll to the parliamentary press lobby, apart from being an outsider, is uncertain. Their eventual teaming up is low-key and understated, the viewer missing more scenes of exposition between them to underline their essential decentness. But the two men work well together; Trop is clearly the more dynamic of the two just as Moll offers, by return, his essential contacts and cynical experience of the system. At the close of the film, whilst the opening of Trop's car door symbolically admits his new journalistic comrade into his more respectable 'world' suggesting the permanence of unlikely trust built between the two men, one doubts that their relationship will really lead on to greater things, or indeed will survive the next breaking story.

For more effective and overtly dramatic scenes one has to look elsewhere in the film - notably the moment where, still in a tail spin from his initial professional crisis, Torp returns home to his wife, to find his father there waiting for him. Urged to swallow his pride and to swim with the flow (i.e. stop proving such a thorn in the side to the establishment), Torp angrily refuses his father's suggestions, eventually telling him to clear out. As part of the brief but heated exchange which ensues, his father verbally cuts his son's wife short, and Torp thereupon accuses him of treating his wife the way he does his own. It is a telling exchange, signifying Torp's obstinate pride and self worth, as well as revealing a gap, suddenly exposed, between two generations. King's Game can thus be seen just as much about Torp's need to be morally independent from the accepted system in which he arrives, as well as from his father (who seems to have done very well on the basis of his earlier career), as it is about wider political chicanery.

Because of this 'other' centre of concern, and lack of broad campaign perspective giving background to events, Arcel's film sometime feels drawn on a smaller scale than it ought. One has no idea of the original novel's strengths, but remembers that a writer like C.P. Snow say, who delineated the corridors of power in his books some years back, would have made more of the relationships and compromises between decision makers. Shot in widescreen but with little visual flourish or attempt to open things out cinematically, King's Game would arguably work just as well as a TV movie presentation, albeit a superior one. There's a sense of claustrophobia about the result that can be effective, but one hopes in vain for anything notable in the many interior set-ups, which remain unremarkable. Even the most shocking moment in the film - a suicide in a wood, which for many British viewers bares uncomfortable faint echoes of that of Dr David Kelly - is depicted with restraint, the film going out of its way again to avoid sensationalism.

Tense, absorbing and with a relatively uncluttered storyline for a conspiracy thriller, King's Game is well worth a viewing, then - although it's by no means the best of its type. And as the film concludes, and in a postscript we learn that a 'rehabilitated' politician has been given a plum EEC job, there may be a wry smile on the face of the rising audience, but many will want to see better things yet emerging from contemporary Danish cinema.
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