Despite intentionally branding itself as a prequel to quirky spy thrillers Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kingsman: The Golden Circle, The King’s Man lacks any of the levity and silliness that made its predecessors successful
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Brühl, Djimon Hounsou, and Charles Dance
Following on from Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kingsman: The Golden Circle comes Mathew Vaughn’s The King’s Man, which serves as a prequel, establishing the Kingsman agency which serves as the backdrop to Taron Egerton’s Eggsy’s whimsical adventures. Both of these films have been characterised by their tongue-in-cheek tone, their likeable characters and the wry side-eye it gives to established tropes within the spy genre. Unfortunately, The King’s Man lacks the intelligence of the original, with none of the necessary levity to make watching enjoyable and fails to reconcile the new time period with any semblance of the tone established by previous instalments of the franchise.
The King’s Man is as far removed from the exploits of affable Eggsy as it is possible to be, taking place more than a century before to follow the Duke of Oxford (whose first name is Orlando – possibly the weirdest move in a film of some frightfully weird moves) (Ralph Fiennes) and his son Conrad (Harris Dickinson). Because no man is complete without a tragic backstory, Orlando’s wife and Conrad’s mother – who was, of course, a paragon of virtue in the dreadfully few moments the audience spend with her – is slain in the midst of a philanthropic visit to the Boer War. This results in Orlando being fiercely protective over Conrad, who desperately longs to work for the betterment of his country.
Despite being contextualised within the plot, Orlando’s actions never cease being anything other than monumentally irritating. Nor is it in any way groundbreaking to have a troubled, emotionally stunted white man at the centre of a story, ignoring everybody else’s wants and desires to prioritise his own. In fact, in the brief moments that she does grace the screen, one cannot help but feel that The King’s Man would have been infinitely more captivating had Orlando been the one to be unceremoniously offed while Emily survived.
The message which Emily instils in Conrad before passing, however, is that those who are born into wealth and privilege have a duty to protect and help those who are not afforded those same luxuries by nature of their birth. While a mysterious, shadowy figure known as the Shepherd lurks in the background, he uses his network of international operatives to begin to set in motion the First World War by setting the British, German and Russian empires against each other.
After failing to protect Archduke Franz Ferdinand on Kitchener’s (Charles Dance) orders, and suspecting that Gregori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans) is manipulating one of King George’s (Tom Hollander) cousins Tsar Nicholas (Tom Hollander) to withdraw from the ensuing war, leaving Britain vulnerable against King George’s other cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm (Tom Hollander), Conrad can stand it no longer. Fortunately, however, it transpires that father Orlando is not as curmudgeonly as he appears, leading an underground network of spies including two of his servants Polly (Gemma Arterton) and Shola (Djimon Hounsou), which soon sets Orlando and Conrad on a collision course with the dastardly Shepherd as the Great War continues to decimate large swathes of Europe.
As one can plainly observe from this lengthy synopsis, this film is nowhere near as cohesive and streamlined as one would hope it to be. Despite its clear titular link to 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service and 2017 sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle, The King’s Man doesn’t feature much in the way of a spy organisation until far too late into the proceedings. Pacing is definitely a problem here, with most depicted events feeling more like a war film than like either the satire of the original Kingsman or indeed the absurdist comedy of the following sequel.
To even claim The King’s Man as an action comedy feels disingenuous. There are small moments that are lightly amusing, but nothing even vaguely equating to a laugh-out-loud moment which is, you’ll forgive me, a typical hallmark of a comedy film. Its main attempts at comedy appear woefully tone-deaf and derive from a pansexual, sex crazed Rasputin directing his lust at Orlando, instead of nubile Conrad, their intended honey trap. Perhaps this is unsurprising, considering the previous instalments’ difficulties with tasteful comedy, with the closing moments of Kingsman: The Secret Service ending with Eggsy sodomising an eyelash-batting princess as reward for saving the world – though at least this film had the defence of intentionally being a satire of the spy genre, and the habits women have of tending to have sex with the leading action hero for very little plot justification.
Ultimately, The King’s Man feels like an ordeal to sit through. While setting up the premise of The Shepherd starting World War One, the audience are treated to a deal of re-enactments of established history, such as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the familial relationship between King George, Tsar Nicholas and Kaiser Wilhelm. Couple that with repeated reminders of devastating, brutal bloodshed on battlefields and within trenches and add in the Bolshevik Revolution it feels far less light hearted than its predecessors.
It’s hard to determine exactly where it goes wrong with The King’s Man because so little about it is right. Any discerning screenwriter should perhaps know that the First World War is, perhaps, not the right backdrop for any sort of comedy flick. Suggesting that the entire enterprise was the result of an annoyed Scotsman is nothing less than lunacy and, dare I say, disrespectful. One cannot expect to display on screen the sheer horror of the atrocities that littered No Man’s Land and still expect to derive comedy from this. In contrast to the previous two films, though the characters are fictional, the events that transpired in World War One were not, and a representation of that on screen is nothing short of sobering.
At some points, the script approaches something that is clever. Managing to incorporate The Shepherd’s operatives into key, deciding moments of the First World War was fractionally engaging. How fanciful it would be if it were all the machinations of one errant individual. But this does not meld well with the Kingsman brand, and to then introduce during the credits a new addition to the Shepherd’s ranks of Adolf Hitler is just plain offensive.
The plodding plot also critically lacks tension. From the time period, it’s clear to most audience members with even a passing knowledge of the First World War (granted, not everyone may know that Gavrilo Princip set in motion the Great War by assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand, or that Kitchener did indeed die in a submarine accident, ostensibly due to colliding with a German mine, or that Gregori Rasputin did die at a Christmas party at a relative to an English spy’s house, and that he was served poisoned cake there before being shot – so from a historical revisionist perspective this has been thought through) how the plot is going to unfold. Ultimately, the audience has the knowledge when the Shepherd attests the end to the British Empire that the war isn’t even going to come close. How do we know this? Because we still speak English.
The small moments within the film that do attempt to increase tension actually serve to distract from the film. A shock death more than halfway through the film is more frustrating than anything else and could have been removed for dramatically more condensed storytelling, as the long-term impact upon remaining characters is minimal. The final conflict occurring between Orlando and the Shepherd also occurs after far too much of the runtime has elapsed so by this point the audience’s interest has long evaporated.
Perhaps Mathew Vaughn should update himself on the basic tenets of a) comedy and b) storytelling. Traditionally, stories can generally be classified into Beginning, Middle and End – or a story mountain, in which the tension gradually increases to boiling point, before settling down once more. The story structure of The King’s Man might be better described as a story plain, in which nothing very much interesting is happening and that continues for a whole 131 minutes, so when something minorly interesting happens and the film demands investment, one finds that one doesn’t greatly care.
Characters should also undergo some sort of transformation. Orlando does not. Emotions are for lesser men than Orlando. Character development is also in short supply for any of our characters and, despite being the best part of the film by a country mile, Gemma Arterton is done a considerable disservice by being consigned to a two-dimensional servant genius with poor decision making skills.
Short of its title and a few moments towards the close, The King’s Man has nothing to do with the franchise to which it connects itself. In fact, it more uses the brand as a way to entice viewers to watch a boring, endlessly meandering and unrewarding war film.
The King’s Man is available to watch in cinemas, but I wouldn’t waste my time if I were you