The King’s Man review: Spy franchise’s garbled politicking has a go at rewriting history

Matthew Vaughn’s films try and largely fail to wrap traditional ideas in liberal buzzwords and schlocky violence

Clarisse Loughrey
Tuesday 14 December 2021 23:09
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The King's Man trailer

Dir: Matthew Vaughn Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Harris Dickinson, Daniel Brühl, Djimon Hounsou. 15, 131 minutes.

“Manners maketh the man” – or so says the Kingsman franchise. It’s a chivalric code shared between a band of secret agents, all modern-day crusaders who have swapped sword and shield for suit and gun, while bearing code names like Merlin and Galahad. And it’s key to so much of the garbled politicking of the Kingsman franchise, which tries and largely fails to wrap traditional ideas in liberal buzzwords and schlocky violence. It’s been the case since Taron Egerton’s Eggsy first popped up on screen back in 2014, a working-class kid whose initiation into the Kingsman secret service masqueraded as a critique of the stuffy imperialism of the spy genre, while all it really offered was the Pretty Woman brand of social mobility. Kingsman: The Secret Service was a surprise hit, making way for a 2017 sequel, with its own American counterparts.

But these films are grounded as much in the romanticism of Arthurian legend as they are in Bond pastiche – and that’s no less true of Matthew Vaughn’s latest addition to the canon, the First World War-set prequel The King’s Man. It opens with Emily Oxford (Alexandra Maria Lara) regaling her young son Conrad (Alexander Shaw) with the story of Arthur’s Round Table. It is a symbol of ultimate equality between the noble-hearted, which is why, she explains, she and her husband Orlando (Ralph Fiennes) are lifelong patrons of the Red Cross. Arthur’s knights were equal among themselves, but still dominant over Britain’s peasants. And so the Oxfords maintain their wealth and privilege, but employ it in the aid of others. It’s a romantic vision of compassionate conservatism (Vaughn, it should be noted, is a former creative consultant to the Conservative Party) – that manners not only maketh the man, but excuseth the man from all guilt.

In The King’s Man, that mentality collides with a self-indulgent rewrite of 20th-century history, in order to establish the origins of these blue-blooded agents. Orlando, a Boer War veteran wracked with the guilt of his colonial crimes, fears that Conrad (now older and played by Harris Dickinson) will be swept up in the patriotic fervour of the First World War and lose his life to a pointless cause. Vaughn, to his credit, never trivialises warfare itself, and the film’s trench scenes are rendered with the same muddy verisimilitude as 1917. But it’s hard to keep a straight face when the rest of the film’s plot is tied to the revelation that every major geopolitical event of the period was, in fact, engineered by a disgruntled Scotsman (whose identity is kept secret until the final act, to little effect) and his shadowy boardroom of semi-notable historical figures.

The Kingsman franchise is really a test of what audiences are willing to put up with in exchange for a handful of cool action scenes. What would you sacrifice to watch Colin Firth bludgeon someone to death with a bible? Or Pedro Pascal lasso a knife straight into someone’s heart? Or, in this case, Rhys Ifans as Rasputin cossack dancing his way through a battle, having stuffed an extra-large Bakewell tart into his mouth and tongued a rather vaginal-looking scar on Fiennes’s leg? Ifans storms through the film like a one-man Russian tornado, receiving the very best of the late Brad Allan’s choreography work.

Orlando (Ralph Fienness), a Boer War veteran wracked with the guilt of his colonial crimes, enlists the help of domestic worker Shola (Djimon Hounsou)

But both the silliness and sincerity are all too brief in The King’s Man, and end up tarnished by the film’s insistence on its own subversiveness. Vaughn and Karl Gajdusek’s script will deploy images of emaciated bodies in the British-operated concentration camps of South Africa, rope in complicated figures like Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner) or Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl), and tease the arrival of dictators like they’re Marvel superheroes – but what exactly is the punchline here? What’s the point of wheeling out historical trauma if its only function is to add a little edge to the action?

All the pleasures of The King’s Man find themselves inevitably undermined by its hollowness. Take the conceit that domestic servants, those “seen and not heard”, are the perfect recruits for an international spy network. While Orlando’s own staff, played by the always underused Gemma Arterton and Djimon Hounsou, get to punch, kick, and shoot by their employer’s side – it’s expected that Orlando, at any moment, might turn around and order them to brew up a pot of tea. Were King Arthur’s knights ever asked to do the same?

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