Film Review: To Kill A King (2003)

This is not war…”

As with many historical films, it is easy to get caught up in matters of accuracy with To Kill A King’s portrayal of Oliver Cromwell and the puritan movement he led with Thomas Fairfax which ultimately saw the trial and death of King Charles I. The casting of Tim Roth instantly points toward the direction Mike Barker’s film leans in and before even a word is spoken, we’re left in no uncertain terms about the psychopathic tendencies of this interpretation of Cromwell. But written by Jenny Mayhew, the film’s focus is actually on the relationship between the two friends and the strain it faces as they set about rebuilding a nation.

And in that respect I think it is quite a successful piece of work. Roth’s furious intensity as he fights for a republican ideal is tempered by Dougray Scott’s intelligent ambivalence as Fairfax, less inclined to shake up the societal order that is such a major part of his and his family’s life, not least his wife Lady Anne, played excellently by Olivia Williams. The way in which the two are slowly pulled apart as their political ideals are twisted by the realities of negotiating with a recalcitrant Parliament and a manipulative King, active even after his deposition, is compellingly told and engagingly performed.

Scott is particularly good when examining the ramifications of his actions through the reluctant eyes of his wife and he has a genuine chemistry with Williams that makes their scenes a joy. She remains a monarchist and thus is a major force in Fairfax’s own ambivalence, his preference is for a limited monarchy rather than its entire abolition, and this dilemma is the film’s driving force. With Cromwell on the one side and Charles on the other – Rupert Everett has rarely been this good as the king utterly convinced of his divine right – it’s a fascinating struggle, whether true or not.

The cameo hit rate is quite good in here. Finbar Lynch glowers excellently as a key member of the republicans, Adrian Scarborough is an endearing soldier and Steven Webb, Jonathan Coy and Benedict Cumberbatch all pop up at various points. Your enjoyment of To Kill A King will be dependent on your inclination to forgive historical liberties – not being a period of history I know too well, it didn’t bother me so much and crucially, the story it does tell is an interesting one. 

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