Culture Representation: Taking place in the early 1420s, in the parts of Europe that are now known as the Czech Republic and Hungary, the action film “Medieval” (inspired by real historical events) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.
Culture Clash: Czech mercenary leader Jan Žižka is hired to kidnap the fiancée of a lord, as part of a power struggle between two kings over who will take control of the Roman Empire.
Culture Audience: “Medieval” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching medieval war movies, no matter how poorly made and dull the movies might be.
Any movie that calls itself “Medieval,” with the story taking place in medieval Europe, fails to have any credibility when the lead character has an American accent. It’s just one of many problems in this mindless and boring action film. “Medieval” is never truly convincing as a medieval war movie. It just looks like a bunch of cast members playing medival dress-up with lackluster acting and cringeworthy dialogue, much of which looks and sounds too modern for a movie that is supposed to take place in the early 1420s.
Written and directed by Petr Jákl, “Medieval” has too much of plodding pace and formulaic style to be considered immersive or thrilling. And since the movie is based on true events and real people, that makes it even more disappointing that “Medieval” looks very fake and mishandles too many of the historical aspects of the story that “Medieval” should have gotten right. “Medieval” also has a self-important tone that’s off-putting for a movie this badly made.
Ben Foster (who is American in real life) keeps his American accent is portrayal of Czech mercenary leader Jan Žižka, the movie’s protagonist. Apparently, it was just too hard for the “Medieval” filmmakers to have the lead actor speak with a Czech accent or even a vaguely Central European accent. It’s an example of the lazy filmmaking that pollutes this movie.
A movie can spend a large percentage of its budget on production design, costume design and action scenes, but if the overall story isn’t very good, then those visuals are just superficial distractions. Some viewers won’t care about the story just want to see a movie like “Medieval” for the fighting scenes. But even in that aspect, “Medieval” is not impressive at all.
“Medieval” begins by showing the family feud between half-brothers King Wenceslas of Czech (played by Karel Roden) and King Sigismund of Hungary (played by Matthew Goode), who are battling each other for control of the Roman Empire, after the death of Roman Emperor Charles IV. King Wenceslas is Charles IV’s first son, but he can only be crowned emperor by the Pope. King Sigismund wants the same thing. French supporters of the Pope are opposed to King Wenceslas becoming emperor.
Meanwhile, Jan (who works with a tight-knit group of about six men) is seen in battle with his men when they successfully thwart the assassination of Lord Boresh (played by Michael Caine) while he is traveling by carriage. Jan and his team are reluctant “bodyguards” because Lord Boresh has been slow to pay them. Lord Boresh asks haughtily, “When have you not been paid by men.” Giovanni (played by David Bowles), one of the soldiers in Jan’s mercenary gang, responds: “When have you not been protected by us?”
Lord Boresh does not want King Sigismund to become the emperor of the Roman Empire because he thinks this Hungarian king is too corrupt. Lord Bores then gives Jan a new assignment: kidnap Lady Katherine (played by Sophie Lowe), who is the fiancée of Lord Rosenberg (played by Til Schweiger), a powerful ally of King Sigismund. The plan is that this kidnapping will distract Lord Rosenberg from being fully available and helpful to King Sigismund.
It’s a flimsy plan at best, but the entire movie revolves around it and brings nothing interesting to the story. And the most cliché of cliché things happens when there’s a “damsel in distress” in in a war movie. The “hero” falls in love with her. Foster and Lowe have as much chemistry together as soggy and corroded batteries. Meanwhile, Lady Katherine is treated like a pawn who’s tossed back and forth between her captors.
Jan’s main antagonists are King Sigismund’s army leader Torak (played by Roland Møller) and Captain Martin (played by Kevin Bernhardt), who goes after Jan’s family, thereby that changing Jan’s agenda from being a mercenary for hire to a family member who’s out for personal revenge. Jan’s family members who get dragged into this mess are his brother Jaroslav (played by William Moseley), Jaroslav’s wife Maria (played by Aneta Kernová), and their son/Jan’s nephew (played by William Lizr), who doesn’t have a name in the movie. Torak is also Jan’s former mentor.
Unfortunately, “Medieval” doesn’t do much with what could have been an intriguing story. It’s just a series of poorly staged action scenes in between monotonous conversations. Here’s an example of the terrible lines of dialogue in the movie. During a battle scene, Jan shouts to an opponent: “If you choose to fight, you may die! But for your cause, and that is a good death!” Just in case anyone watching “Medieval” forgot why people go to war.
History enthusiasts who are sticklers for details will be not be able to overlook the inaccurate accents from the “Medieval” cast members. Jan and his family members have American accents. Most of the British actors sound British. It’s as if the “Medieval” filmmakers didn’t care that this movie is supposed to take place in Central Europe. And if anyone has the patience to watch “Medieval” until the very end to see all of its substandard foolishness, then it’s obvious that the filmmakers didn’t care about making a high-quality movie.
The Avenue released “Medieval” in U.S. cinemas on September 9, 2022. The movie was released digital and VOD on October 25, 2022. “Medieval” was released on Blu-ray and DVD on December 6, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the United Kingdom cities of Newcastle and London, in 1961 and briefly in 1965, the comedy/drama film “The Duke” features a cast of nearly all-white characters (with one person of Pakistani heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: An anti-establishment senior citizen, who is grieving over the years-ago death of his teenage daughter, pleads not guilty in his trial for stealing Francisco Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London.
Culture Audience: “The Duke” will appeal primarily to people interested in old-fashioned but well-acted period dramas about feisty and opinionated British people that explore issues of rebelling against society and dealing with personal grief.
“The Duke” is more than just a traditionally made movie about a man who goes on trial for stealing a valuable painting from London’s National Gallery. It’s also a witty and emotional drama about a family coping with grief. Based on a true story, “The Duke” is not as predictable as it might seem. The cast members greatly elevate the material, which might have become too lackluster or misguided with the wrong people cast in the roles.
Directed by Roger Michell (who passed away in 2021, at the age of 65), “The Duke” (which takes place in England, mostly in 1961) is really three stories in one, in telling what happened in the year of the life of 60-year-old Kempton Bunton (played Jim Broadbent) before, during and after he was put on trial for a famous art theft. The movie (written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman) focuses mostly on the “before” part of the story, which is somewhat a detriment to the flow of the narrative, which needed to give more screen time to the trial.
Kempton, who lives in Newcastle, is a spunky nonconformist with a keen sense of questioning government authority and wanting to be a champion for underdogs and underprivileged people. He is a taxi driver by trade, but early on in the story, he gets fired from his taxi job. On the day that Kempton gets fired, his no-nonsense supervisor Freda (played by Val McLane, in a scene-stealing cameo) starts off by telling Kempton that she’s been getting customer complaints that he talks too much. More importantly to the boss, Kempton has also been falling short of handing over the company’s commission for his taxi cash earnings. He’s not exactly accused of stealing, but Kempton’s excuses aren’t good explanations for the missing commission money.
Kempton mumbles something about how he took pity on a cab rider who couldn’t afford to pay the fare. Freda tells Kempton, “I might have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I’ve got the testicles of Henry VIII … I am running a taxi firm, not a charity!” When Freda decides to fire Kempton without paying him the salary that he’s owed, he disagrees with her, and she barks at him: “Sue me then. But fuck off first!”
Kempton’s loyal but frustrated wife Dorothy Bunton (played by Helen Mirren) has gotten fed up with Kempton’s erratic employment. Dorothy is essentially the main breadwinner for the household. She works as a housekeeper for a wealthy middle-aged couple, whose husband is a prominent doctor in the area. Kempton and Dorothy have two sons, both in their 20s.
Younger son Jackie (played by Fionn Whitehead), who is kind and obedient, works as a boat repairer/builder at a shipyard, and he lives with Kempton and Dorothy. Jackie has a crush on a young woman who’s close to his age named Irene Boslover (played by Aimée Kelly), and they have a sweet romance that starts off a little hesitantly, because Jackie is shy when it comes to dating. Jackie greatly admires his eccentric father Kempton, but Dorothy worries that Jackie will be influenced too much by Kempton’s disruptor ways.
Older son Kenny (played by Jack Bandeira), who is rebellious and outspoken, no longer lives with his parents. Kenny is involved in shady and illegal activities that he won’t discuss with his family. And much to Dorothy’s disapproval, Kenny plans to start living with his lover Pamela (played by Charlotte Spencer), nicknamed Pammy, who is legally married but separated from her husband. When Kenny and Pamela visit his parents, it leads to arguments and hard feelings between Kenny and his mother Dorothy.
Kempton and Dorothy are parents to a third child—a daughter named Marian—who died in 1948, at the age 18. She was killed in a car accident while riding a bicycle that Kempton gave her as a gift. Kempton feels tremendous guilt over Marian’s death and visits her grave on a regular basis. Kempton also likes to talk about Marian and reminisce about happy memories that he has of her.
By contrast, Dorothy refuses to discuss Marian and her death. She treats Marian’s death as if it’s a closed door that she doesn’t ever want to open again. She won’t even visit Marian’s grave. Because Kempton and Dorothy have handled Marian’s death in extremely different ways, it’s caused a strain in their marriage.
Kempton has written a drama manuscript, inspired by Marian, called “The Girl on a Bicycle” that he hopes will be produced for television. Later in the movie, Dorothy is horrified when she finds out about this manuscript. “Grief is private!” Dorothy gruffly tells Kempton.
One day, Kempton watches the TV news and sees a report announcing that the National Gallery in London has purchased a Francisco Goya portrait painting of the Duke of Wellington, also known as former U.K. prime minister Arthur Wellesley. The painting is worth £140,000 in 1961 money. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about £267 million in early 2020s money. Kempton scoffs at the extravagant purchase, because he thinks the U.K. government could have put the money to better use.
Kempton is more than a little irritated about it. In a typical Kempton Bunton comment, he remarks to Dorothy about the National Gallery’s purchase of this painting: “You know what’s going on here. Toffs looking after their own. Spending our hard-earned money on a half-baked board rate, by some Spanish drunk, of a duke who was a bastard to his men and was against universal suffrage.” The irony of this comment is that Kempton has not paid his taxes in years.
Later, Kempton goes to London, in an attempt to get media and government attention for his quest to make TV in the United Kingdom free for old age pensioners (OAPs), who are usually on a fixed and limited income. While in London, he sees a newspaper article about the painting where the National Gallery has issued this invitation to visitors who want to see the Duke of Wellington painting: “Line up to meet the Duke!”
And not long after that, the painting is stolen and hidden in the Bunton household. It’s the first time that any art has been stolen from the National Gallery. (And to this day, it remains the only major theft that the National Gallery has experienced.) An anonymous ransom note written and mailed by Kempton announces that the painting is being held “hostage” until the U.K. government agrees to give £140,000 (the price paid for the painting) to worthy causes supporting the elderly and military veterans.
Police commissioner Sir Joseph Simpson (played by Charles Edwards) leads the investigation, but “The Duke” predictably has two bumbling police detectives—DI (Detective Inspector) Macpherson (played by Dorian Lough) and DI Brompton (played by Sam Swansbury)—who do a lot of the grunt work. Commissioner Simpson has a public relations role of giving updates to the media about the investigation. He seems to want all the publicity and glory for solving the case.
The police make the mistake of dismissing the correct suspect profile that a handwriting expert named Dr. Unsworth (played by Sian Clifford) deduced from studying the ransom note and figuring out what type of person wrote it. These detectives are convinced by their own theory that the painting was stolen by an unknown sophisticated gang from another nation, probably from Italy. The detectives also say amongst themselves that a woman who’s a handwriting expert could not possibly know more than these experienced cops.
Through a series of events that won’t be revealed in this review, the painting is discovered in the Bunton house. It’s enough to say that Kempton decides to turn himself in and admit that he “borrowed” the painting, to point out wasteful government spending and to demand that the U.K. government invest in better care for the elderly and military veterans. He pleads not guilty to the theft. None of this is spoiler information, because the movie’s trailer already reveals that Kempton goes on trial for stealing the painting.
Kempton’s trial doesn’t happen until the last third of the movie. Kempton’s defense attorney Jeremy Hutchinson (played by Matthew Goode) sometimes clashes with Kempton behind the scenes, but they both want to win the case. And so, Kempton and Jeremy find some common ground of agreement. The story has a real-life plot twist revealed in the movie’s last 15 minutes, which show how far Kempton is willing to go to stand by his beliefs, even if it’s at great personal risk to himself.
With a working-class man in his 60s as the protagonist, “The Duke” is the type of British drama movie that doesn’t get made very much anymore. Dorothy is a formidable and strong-willed person in this story (and Mirren performs well in the role, as expected), but she’s really a supporting character who reacts to whatever chaos Kempton has created. Broadbent brings roguish charm to this role, and his performance (which is both amusing and heartbreaking) is the main reason to see this film.
“The Duke” is not perfect by any means. The movie takes a little too long to get to the trial, which is somewhat crammed in toward the end of the film. There are several scenes that over-explain how Kempton has trouble keeping a job because of his tendency to question authority. And there’s a repeated cycle of Dorothy getting upset by Kempton’s mischief, and Kempton promising that he won’t cause any more problems and won’t keep secrets from her. And then, he inevitably breaks his promise.
As an example of Kempton’s unstable employment, there’s a section of the movie showing Kempton in a job as an assembly line worker at a bread factory. He befriends a Pakistani co-worker named Javid Akram (played by Ashley Kumar), who is the only employee in that department who isn’t white. Kempton eventually gets fired for standing up to his racist boss Mr. Walker (played by Craig Conway), who bullies Javid by calling him a racial slur and singling him out for unfair treatment.
“The Duke” also tends to be a little too repetitive with Kempton’s bootlegging of the ITV network (which, unlike the BBC, requires payment to receive) on the TV set in his household’s living room. He tries to dodge the authorities he encounters who attempt to fine him for non-payment, but he eventually spends 13 jays in jail when he gets into a scuffle over it. During his ongoing dispute over this issue, Kempton stages protests on the street with “Free TV for OAP” signs, with Jackie recruited as Kempton’s protest companion. Most people who pass Kempton and Jackie on the street just don’t care—and neither will viewers after a while, since the stolen painting is the more interesting part of the movie.
When Kempton’s legal entanglements make the news, Dorothy is embarrassed, makes profuse apologies to her employer Dolly Gowling (played by Anna Maxwell Martin), and promises that she’s not as “unstable” has her husband. Mrs. Gowling, who is married to a difficult and domineering man, has empathy for Kempton. Because she is a supporter of Kempton’s anti-establishment ways, Mrs. Gowling attends his trial as an eager spectator.
Any supporting characters outside of Dorothy and Jackie tend to be drawn in broad strokes that are a little stereotypical. They include the “law and order” characters, such as the aforementioned main detectives; Judge Aarvold (played by James Wilby); prosecutor Edward Cussen (played by John Heffernan); and junior counsel Eric Crowther (played by Joshua McGuire), who works with Jeremy on Kempton’s defense team. Despite some of these narrative flaws, “The Duke” has enough amusing banter, heartfelt moments and well-played scenes to hold the interest of people who are open to watching movies set in 1960s England and that have a retro filmmaking style that matches this era.
Sony Pictures Classics released “The Duke” in select U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022. The movie was released in Canada and Australia in 2021, and in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Japan on February 25, 2022.
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the dark comedy film “Silent Night” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with two black people) representing the working-class and upper-middle-class.
Culture Clash: Before an impending apocalypse, a family gathers for one last Christmas dinner, where secrets are revealed, and there are emotionally painful debates over suicide.
Culture Audience: “Silent Night” will appeal primarily to people that are interested in watching very dark satires of how people deal with certain death.
“Silent Night” takes heartwarming movie clichés about Christmas holiday gatherings, and burns those stereotypes to a crisp. It’s not a horror film but a very dark comedy about how an apocalypse brings out the best and worst in people. Some viewers who have no problem watching apocalypse movies might have a problem with how the impending doom in “Silent Night” involves children and is set during the Christmas holiday season. Therefore, this movie is not for people who are very religious, or sensitive people who are extremely offended by debates about committing suicide versus waiting to be killed by an apocalypse.
“Silent Night” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Camille Smith, who took a bold risk to make her first feature film focused on such an uncomfortable topic and making it a satire. It’s a dialogue-heavy film about an upper-middle-class British family gathered for one last Christmas dinner on the eve of an apocalypse. There are secrets and lies that are revealed during this dinner, but this is not a typical apocalyptic movie where all the characters want to stay alive.
What makes “Silent Night” so different from other apocalyptic movies is that people in the movie have the option to take an Exit pill, which will kill them almost immediately, in order to avoid suffering during the apocalypse. It’s this suicide angle that’s the most likely to make “Silent Night” offensive or controversial to some viewers. However, the movie does point out the uncomfortable truth that tragedies such as suicide don’t stop just because of an impending apocalypse.
The movie is a disquieting roller coaster ride about how people’s minds can be messed with when dealing with the destructive end of the world as they know it. Some people want to plan ahead and be as prepared as possible. Some people want to deny it all and act like everything’s fine until the last possible moment. Some people don’t want to stick around for the apolocaypse to happen and want to take control of how and when they will die. Other people want to hold out hope that maybe they and their loved ones can survive the apocalypse.
This varied range of emotions and attitudes are all on display with the family gathered for this meal. Although there are many characters in the story, they have distinct personalities, so it’s easy to tell them apart. These family members are:
Nell (played by Keira Knightley), a high-strung socialite who is determined to keep the annual holiday tradition of having a fabulous Christmas dinner at her home.
Simon (played by Matthew Goode), Nell’s patient and loving husband, who is more willing to discuss the impending apocalypse than Nell is.
Art (played by Roman Griffin Davis), Nell and Simon’s outspoken and foul-mouthed youngest child, who’s about 12 or 13 years old.
Hardy (played by Hardy Griffin Davis) and Thomas (played by Gilby Griffin Davis), the identical twin sons of Nell and Simon. The twins, who are about 14 or 15 years old, are almost as bratty as their younger brother Art.
Sandra (played by Annabelle Wallis), Nell’s materialistic and judgmental older sister.
Tony (played by Rufus Jones), Sandra’s laid-back and often-henpecked husband.
Kitty (played by Davida McKenzie), Sandra and Tony’s prim and proper daughter, who’s about 12 or 13 years old.
Bella (played by Lucy Punch), Nell and Sandra’s irresponsible queer older sister, who is a single mother, but her child is not with her at this dinner.
Alex (played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Bella’s girlfriend, who works as a bodyguard and is more sensible than Bella.
James (as Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù), Alex’s younger brother, who is an oncologist in his early 30s.
Sophie (played by Lily-Rose Deep), James’ American girlfriend, who’s about 10 years younger than James is.
At first, the gathering seems festive and full of cheer, as everyone avoids talking about the apocalypse in depth. However, not everyone wants to be at this party. An early scene in the movie shows that while Sophie and James were driving to Nell and Simon’s house, Sophie expresses her reluctance to go to the party this year. There’s definitely disagreeable tension between this couple. Eventually, the bickering and discord begin among other people at this gathering.
Sandra and Bella have a little argument because someone named Lizzie wasn’t invited to this dinner party. Sandra was supposed to invite Lizzie, whom Bella doesn’t like. But Sandra thought that Bella would invite Lizzie. The two sisters can’t agree on whose responsibility it was to give the invitation, so they reach a stalemate.
Meanwhile, brothers Art, Hardy and Thomas are little terrors when teasing Kitty, who is a serious and often-mopey child. Kitty is offended by the brothers’ cursing. She snootily says that coarse language is for “common” people. Kitty is also upset because she wants sticky toffee pudding, which Kitty has every year at this dinner, but Nell forget to buy the pudding this year, and Nell tries to hide this fact.
Later, when the family members open their gifts around the Christmas tree, Kitty is unhappy with her gift (a talking doll), and refuses to give a “thank you” hug to her mother Sandra. Why? As Kitty pouts to Sandra, “You’re wearing my education on your feet.” In other words, Sandra spent the money for Kitty’s future school tuition on high-priced shoes. After all, what good is that money going to be in the future if the world is going to end and there’s very little chance of survival?
Before dinner, the three sisters gather in the kitchen to exchange gossip and catty remarks. They wonder out loud if Sophie is anorexic because she’s very thin. Nell and Bella mention that before they became mothers, they used to do cocaine to keep their weight down. All three sisters think that Sophie is too young for James.
Meanwhile, the men gather in the greenhouse on the property, where James reveals a big secret that he doesn’t want Nell, Sandra, Bella, Alex and the children to know about. The secret involves a major decision that has to be made before the apocalypse happens. The problem is that certain people involved in the decision don’t agree on what should be done.
By the first 15 minutes of “Silent Night,” it becomes obvious that this family is not the warm and fuzzy type, with or without an apocalypse. Nell has her big annual Christmas dinner mainly so she can show off to other members of the family. But this year, it’s different. There’s enough food and drinks to go around, but the meal isn’t as lavish as it was in the past. For example, instead of having a fancy potato dish that would be normal for this dinner, Nell says that the entire group can only have one potato per person.
It’s the first sign of rationing that implies a food shortage has been going on for quite some time. Over this scaled-back dinner, Sophie gets confrontational with Kitty about the Queen of England’s recent televised Christmas speech. Sophie is offended because she thinks that the queen looked like she was giving the speech inside of a bunker. Sophie thinks that the British royal family secretly has access to apocalypse-proof safe houses. Kitty says that it doesn’t matter because the queen is “old” and “the Russians want us all dead.”
And then, people at this fateful dinner start talking about the apocalypse, which is described as an “environmental disaster.” It’s implied that scientists predicted the exact day that the apocalypse would arrive, much like hurricanes can be predicted with precision. On television, Art sees a commercial for the Exit pill. His curiosity about the pill leads him to ask questions that the adults find difficult to answer.
The movie makes a little bit of a sociopolitical commentary when it soon becomes clear that the Exit pill is only for people who can afford it. Simon tells Art that some people in society, such as homeless people and illegal immigrants, haven’t been given the Exit pill. Simon explains to Art that the Exit pill has been withheld from certain groups of people because the government doesn’t think they legally exist.
“Silent Night” doesn’t get bogged down in political preaching. Instead, the big ethical debate in the movie is whether or not parents have the right to decide if their underage children should take the Exit pill or not. Art has an opinion that is very different from his parents. Other people at this family gathering have conflicting opinions if they or other people should take the Exit pill.
Because “Silent Night” takes place entirely on the estate property of Nell and Simon, the movie is meant to be somewhat claustrophobic in its contained setting. (Trudie Styler, who is one of the movie’s producers, has a cameo as a family friend named Nicole, who says her last goodbyes via a video conference call.) The number of people in the cast is relatively small, but the movie is realistic in showing that most people in an impending disaster would want to stick close to home with family members.
“Silent Night” has its share of flaws (there’s some contrived soap opera melodrama), and the movie will disappoint viewers who are expecting more action or more likable characters. However, all of the cast members give capable performances, and writer/director Griffin maintains an effective level of suspense over what’s going to happen in this story. Ultimately, “Silent Night” succeeds in its intention to pose disturbing questions about how an apocalypse should be handled when power and privilege play more of a role than some people would like to admit.
RLJE Films released “Silent Night” in select U.S. cinemas, and AMC+ premiered the movie on December 3, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the United Kingdom and Russia from 1902 to the late 1910s, the action film “The King’s Man” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.
Culture Clash: Orlando Oxford (a British former military man also known as the Duke of Oxford) and some allies, including his son Conrad, battle villains led by evil Russian monk Grigori Rasputin.
Culture Audience: “The King’s Man” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Ralph Fiennes, the “Kingsman” movies and poorly written action flicks.
“The King’s Man” is a charmless prequel that’s messier than the unkempt beard and head of hair on Rasputin, the movie’s flashiest villain. Even with a talented cast, this origin story to the “Kingsman” movies gets bogged down in a jumbled plot and cringeworthy dialogue. And for an action movie, much of “The King’s Man” is downright dull.
“The King’s Man” is the precursor story of 2015’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and 2017’s inferior sequel “Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” which are all about a secret spy agency led by Brits. Matthew Vaughn directed and co-wrote all three movies, which are all based on the comic book series “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbon.
Audiences don’t have to see “Kingsman: The Secret Service” or “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” to understand “The King’s Man.” In fact, seeing “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” will just prove how “The King’s Man” is such a witless disappointment in comparison. If you only care about explosions and fight scenes that are too choreographed to be believable, then you might find “The King’s Man” entertaining. But if you care about having an interesting storyline and engaging characters along with thrilling action, then “The King’s Man” will leave you bored or annoyed.
Vaughn and Jane Goldman co-wrote “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” For “The King’s Man” screenplay, Vaughn teamed up with Karl Gajdusek, which might explain why the quality of “The King’s Man” is worse than the movies that Vaughn wrote with Goldman. Gajdusek’s other movie screenplay credits includes stinkers such as 2011’s “Trespass” and 2020’s “The Last Days of American Crime.” The screenplay for “The King’s Man” is definitely the worst part of the movie.
“The King’s Man” tries to disguise how weak the plot is by tangling it up with more subplots and by introducing useless characters. “The King’s Man” also tries to look smarter than it really is by throwing in real-life historical figures into the mix. But all of these gimmicks cannot hide the gross stupidity of so many aspects of “The King’s Man,” which is nothing but a bloated over-indulgence in period set pieces and big-budget stunts that are just smoke and mirrors for a lackluster story.
The basic story, which takes place from 1902 to the late 1910s, is that wealthy nobleman Orlando Oxford (played by Ralph Fiennes), also known as the Duke of Oxford, is a military-officer-turned-pacifist, who finds himself caught up in a lot of violence and political machinations leading up to World War I. To make matters worse for Orlando, his young adult son Conrad (played by Harris Dickinson) wants to enlist as a soldier to fight during the war, much to Orlando’s objections.
The movie opens during the Boer War in 1902, when Orlando (who’s representing the Red Cross) is visiting a concentration camp in South Africa with other military officials. Traveling with him in the car are Orlando’s wife Emily Oxford (played by Alexandra Maria Lara) and Conrad at about 8 or 9 years old (played by Alexander Shaw), who wait in the car while Orlando goes to meet with the people in charge of the concentration camp.
The movie is so badly written, it never explains why Orlando brought his family into this dangerous situation. During the ride to this concentration camp, Emily tells Conrad about the legendary Knights of the Round Table. She also talks about how privileged people must share their power and that the knights’ round table equals equality.
When you visit a concentration camp and you bring your spouse and underage child with you, don’t expect good things to happen. And sure enough, there’s a shootout that results in Emily getting shot and killed in front of Orlando and Conrad. Orlando’s loyal bodyguard Shola (played by Djimon Hounsou) stabs and kills the shooter, but it’s too late to save Emily. Emily’s dying words to Orlando are: “Protect our son. Promise he’ll never see war again.”
Two other military men were also caught up in this tragic shootout: Lord Kitchener (played by Charles Dance) and his right-hand man Maximillian Morton (played by Matthew Goode), who is a trusted soldier. Lord Kitchener gets shot but not killed. Unlike Orlando, Lord Kitchener does not become a pacifist after this incident. (The Lord Kitchener character is based on the real-life Herbert Kitchener, the British Army officer who later became the U.K.’s secretary of state for war.)
The movie then fast-forwards about 12 years later. Orlando has left the military and is an over-protective father to Conrad, who has led a very sheltered life. As a young man, Conrad is getting restless. Conrad wants to experience life outside of the confines of his family’s lavish estate, but Orlando is reluctant to let Conad experience the real world, and Orlando constantly fears for Conrad’s safety. Conrad has gotten an invitation from his cousin Felix Yusupov (played by Aaron Vodovoz) to visit Felix in Russia, but Orlando won’t allow Conrad to go.
The United Kingdom is on the verge of getting involved in World War I, and Orlando is firm on being an outspoken pacificist. When he takes Conrad to the Kingsman Tailor Shop on London’s Savile Row to get fitted for a new suit, Orlando tells Conrad that he wants the both of them to lead very different lives from their ancestors. Orlando describes their forebears as “tough and ruthless” brutes, who conquered and pillaged their way to power.
Orlando and Conrad have a sassy housekeeper named Polly Watkins (played by Gemma Arterton), who says things to Orlando such as: “I’ll play by your rules, if you play by mine.” “The King’s Man” is yet another action movie where the people who get top billing are several men and one token woman. And the movie has the sexist trope that this token female character can’t be around these men unless she’s a love interest of one of the men.
Therefore, you know where this is going when “The King’s Man” makes it obvious that Polly’s snappy remarks to Orlando are just her way of flirting with him and testing how he’ll react to her. It takes a while for Orlando to catch on to Polly’s romantic interest in him. And there’s a formulaic soap opera subplot when this would-be romance hits a very big snag.
Of course, there would be no “King’s Man” movie if Orlando and Conrad led a peaceful and tranquil life. Orlando, Conrad, Shola and Polly get caught up in a series of events where they become a four-person combat team fighting off various villains, many of whom are real-life historical figures.
These rogues have meetings around a table in a dark, dungeon-type of room, where Russian monk Grigori Rasputin (played by Rhys Ifans) leads the discussions. But there’s a mysterious mastermind who’s seen in the shadows during these meetings. And this person is the one who’s really calling the shots. (The movie eventually reveals who this mastermind is.) Also part of this rogue’s gallery are Dutch spy Mata Hari (played by Valerie Pachner) and Austrian con artist Erik Jan Hanussen (played by Daniel Brühl).
One of the movie’s few highlights is in how it pokes fun at real-life rivalries of royal cousins King George of Great Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Tsar Nicholas of Russia. All three roles are played by Tom Hollander, who does a very good job at balancing comedy and drama in his performances. However, the movie’s attempts at having high-minded “history lessons” are just drowned in an avalanche of silly conversations and convoluted plot twists that aren’t very clever.
The movie also goes off on a weird and unnecessary tangent when it fixates on Rasputin’s reputation of being a hedonistic libertine. At first, Rasputin’s insults are mild. When he first meets Orlando and Conrad, he asks them, based on how Orlando and Conrad are dressed: “Are you waiters or Englishmen?”
Later, Rasputin ramps up the sex talk by saying, “I only make a decision when my belly is full and my balls are empty.” And then he says to Orlando, “If I didn’t know better, I’d think your son is trying to fuck me.” Orlando replies, “Knowing your reputation, I’d think you’re trying to fuck him.”
And the homoerotic innuendos continue. After Orlando gets a leg wound, Rasputin says to him, “Let me lick your wounds.” Rasputin then flicks his tongue on Orlando’s leg wound in a sexually suggestive manner. The filmmakers go overboard in making their point that Rasputin is supposed to be some kind of sexual predator.
But really, it’s all just a badly written and awkward-looking attempt at making audiences laugh at the idea that a straight guy like Orlando is supposed to be uncomfortable at male sexuality that isn’t heterosexual. And why is it that the only possibly queer character in this movie has to be a villain? It’s really just homophobic filmmaking that’s incredibly tone-deaf and outdated, much like many other aspects of his dumb film.
“The King’s Man” fails in much of its comedy, but the dramatic scenes aren’t much better. That leaves the action to possibly salvage the film, but the movie falls short in that area too. There are obvious stunt doubles and distracting CGI effects in too many of the action scenes.
The movie’s production design and costume design are actually two things that make “The King’s Man” enjoyable to look at on a superficial level. However, the movie’s tone veers from having slapstick-type goofy comedy to trying to be an intense and serious spy thriller. Ultimately, “The King’s Man” is a movie prequel that makes the “Kingsman” franchise look stuck in an unimaginative rut that’s in desperate need of fresh and new ideas.
20th Century Studios released “The King’s Man” in U.S. cinemas on December 22, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in England, the comedy/drama/fantasy film “Four Kids and It” features a predominantly white cast (with some black people) representing the middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A British man and his American girlfriend go on a blended family vacation together for the first time with their respective children, who secretly discover an ancient talking creature that can make wishes come true.
Culture Audience: “Four Kids and It” is a family film that children under the age of 10 might enjoy, but older kids and adults might be bored with the often-dull, awkward and predictable storyline.
In case you think the world still doesn’t have enough family films that are about non-human talking creatures, here comes another one that unfortunately will be relegated to the “forgettable” pile. “Four Kids and It” (directed by Andy DeEmmony) is an utterly predictable and frequently boring mush of mediocrity that won’t be the type of “addictive” viewing that can be described for so many beloved family-friendly films.
The screenplay for “Four Kids and It” (clumsily written by Simon Lewis) is adapted from Jacqueline Wilson’s 2012 children’s novel “Four Children and It,” which was inspired by E. Nesbit’s 1902 children’s novel “Five Children and It.” The movie version is a far inferior version of the book, since it adds an irritating new character that mucks up the story and actually makes it more confusing to the people unfamiliar with the novels.
“Four Kids and It” begins by showing two different divorced parents with their respective kids. David (played by Matthew Goode) is a British father of 13-year-old book enthusiast Rosalind, nicknamed Ros (played by Teddie Malleson-Allen) and adventurous 9-year-old Robbie (played by Billy Jenkins). Alice (played by Paula Patton) is an American mother of 13-year-old rebellious brat Samantha, nicknamed Smash (played by Ashley Aufderheide), and sweet-natured 5-year-old Maudie (played by Ellie-Mae Siame).
What do they all have in common? They’re all about to go on holiday together at an English countryside beach, where they’ll be staying at David’s vacation home. It’s at this beach that the kids will meet the aforementioned talking creature, which doesn’t show itself when the parents are around. And what the children also don’t know yet is the true intention for David and Alice to arrange this trip.
Alice and David have been secretly dating each other. The vacation will be the first time that this couple will tell their kids about the relationship and introduce the kids to each other. Can you say “awkward”? It’s a big departure from the “Four Children and It” book, where David and Alice are both British and already married to each other, after divorces from their first spouses, and Maudie is their biological child together. In the book, David is Smash’s stepfather, while Alice is Ros and Robbie’s stepmother.
Because the movie adds this new plot element of David’s and Alice’s kids not knowing each other before this fateful vacation, there’s quite a bit of screen time spent on all the conflicts that ensue because of this uncomfortable situation—so much so, that all of this manufactured drama for the movie unfolds long before the kids even see the talking creature that’s supposed to be the catalyst for the adventure part of the story. The opening scenes of the film make it clear that two of the kids are definitely going to clash with each other.
Ros is a studious, obedient bookworm who aspires to be a famous novelist. She’s shown at a library, where a librarian asks Ros if she’s started on her novel yet. Ros replies that whatever she’s written has ended up as crumpled paper in a trash bin—an indication that she’s a perfectionist who’s very hard on herself. And what book does Ros check out of the library? “Five Children and It,” of course.
Meanwhile, Smash is hanging out with a group of boys outside a seedy-looking area. This group looks like it might be a bad influence on her. Alice arrives in her car to retrieve Smash, who reluctantly leaves with her mother, but not before mouthing off some choice words to Alice in a rude and insolent manner.
Smash is a very angry girl. Why? Smash’s father left the family to live with a woman who’s much younger than Alice. Smash blames Alice for the family breaking up, because she thinks that Alice drove Smash’s father away by being a nagging shrew. Of course, it’s shown later in the movie that Smash has a very lofty and misguided opinion of her father (who’s only heard on the phone, but not seen in the story), because in reality he’s an irresponsible jerk who constantly breaks his promises to see Smash.
Smash also hates living in England. She complains about British food and calls the United Kingdom a “sucky little country.” Smash is the very epitome of the type of “ugly American” who disrespects other cultures. And she’s a nightmare to be around, since she likes to instigate fights and cause problems with other people.
The only person Smash doesn’t really get angry with in the story is her little sister Maudie. Everyone else at some point becomes a target of Smash’s rage. Alice is part of the problem, since she enables a lot of this brat’s awful behavior.
David and Alice arrive separately at the beach home with their respective kids. And then, the couple drops the big news to the four children. All of the kids (except for Maudie, who’s too young to know everything) react with shock and disappointment over finding out that their parents have moved on from their ex-spouses and found love with someone new.
It’s a lot for the kids to absorb, because Alice has never met David’s kids before, David has never met Alice’s kids before, and vice versa. And then the kids have now just found out that Alice and David have been secretly dating each other for a while. (The movie doesn’t say how long David and Alice have been in a romantic relationship with each other.) And now, they’re all supposed to be on this vacation like one big happy family. You don’t have to be in a poorly written family film to know this is a recipe for disaster.
Not surprisingly, Smash has the angriest reaction to the news, so there’s a lot of yelling and screaming from her. Smash and Ros despise each other from the beginning, because Smash has declared that one of the house’s bedrooms is hers, even though Ros has always stayed in that bedroom before. The two girls have a knock-down, drag-out fight, while David tries to break it up, and Alice barely does anything to stop Smash from being the terror that she is.
In fact, Alice is a horribly permissive parent who doesn’t discipline Smash when Smash (who’s obviously a loathsome bully) yells at her disrespectfully and says and does mean-spirited things to Ros and Robbie. More than once, Smash yells at Alice, “You’ve ruined my life!” when, by all indications, Smash is leading a pretty comfortable and spoiled life.
“Four Kids and It” screenwriter Lewis seems dead-set on making Smash the teenager from hell, because there’s a lot of emphasis on the fact that Smash is an unruly, uncouth American, while Ros and Robbie are polite British kids. If Ros or Robbie get angry in this story, it’s usually because Smash provoked them. In one scene in the movie, Smash utters another insult about British people by saying that they have flat rear ends, while Ros snaps back that American people’s rear ends are too big. This is what’s supposed to be “funny” in “Four Kids and It.”
When Smash sees that Ros has brought some books on this trip, Smash sneers at Ros, “Who brings books on a holiday?” Ros replies, “People who can read.” Smash snaps back, “People with no lives!”
The movie is updated from the book to show that Smash is someone whose idea of reading is whatever she reads on her phone. Smash is obsessed with her phone. She’s written as a negative cliché of a teenager who cares more about what strangers online think of her and increasing her social-media following rather than caring about treating people in her real life with respect. And even though Maudie is a kind-hearted little kid, being only 5 years old, she’s obviously portrayed as too young/too ignorant to know any better about what goes on with some of the more adult-themed situations in this story.
Alice and her family are African American, so there are some some racial undertones in how they’re portrayed as the least intelligent characters in the movie. It just fuels negative stereotypes that an African American family that’s headed by a single mother is somehow problematic. The movie makes it clear later on that Smash’s father is a deadbeat dad who’s abandoned the family, which is yet another negative cliché of African American men.
David’s ex-wife (Ros and Robbie’s mother) has also also left her family, is emotionally unavailable, and is unseen in the movie but heard in a phone call. (Ros has a delusional hope that her parents will get back together someday.) But David’s ex-wife is given a “noble” excuse for why she doesn’t visit her children as much as they’d like her to visit: She’s away at a university to “find herself” and get a better education. There’s no real excuse given for why Smash’s father is an absentee parent, because he’s simply portrayed as being selfish.
Alice is portrayed as a single mother who’s not very smart, not very competent, and more concerned about making out with David than paying attention to her kids. She’s also a terrible cook—and that doesn’t make her a bad person—but Alice’s lack of cooking skills is a running joke in the movie, which has this sexist idea that because Alice is the only woman in the house, she’s the only one who’s supposed to do the cooking.
“Four Kids and It” is so badly written that it doesn’t even mention what Alice and David do for a living, or why Alice has moved to England with her kids. There’s no context for how David and Alice met and why they’re together. And since the movie never mentions how long Alice and David have been dating each other, there’s no way to know why they chose to have such an abrupt and uncomfortable introduction to each other’s children. It’s poor judgment, regardless of how long Alice and David have been in a relationship with each other.
The movie has also added a new character that’s not in the book: Tristan Trent (played by Russell Brand), a rich recluse who lives in a nearby mansion. Tristan has stocked his cluttered mansion with enough taxidermy animals and ancient artifacts to make his home look like a museum. It’s a sign that he’s an obsessive collector who might stop at nothing to get his hands on priceless treasure. Cue the villain music.
Tristan introduces himself to David, Alice and the kids. He appears to be pleasant and is an obvious eccentric. Tristan invites them to his mansion. In yet another “polite Brit/rude American” contrast that this movie keeps making, David comments to Trent about Trent’s home: “It’s charming.” But Alice blurts out to Trent that his home décor is “old” and “kind of worn-looking. It must be a British thing.”
When the four kids encounter the creature on the beach for the first time, their parents are far away at another part of the beach. Smash has grabbed Robbie’s game device and cruelly thrown it on some dangerous cliff rocks that Robbie has to climb in order to get the device. The creature, which calls itself Psammead (pronounced “Sammy-add” and voiced by Michael Caine), has lived deep in the beach sand for millions of years. In the movie, the creature moves through the sand as if it’s a Jaws-like shark in the ocean.
The kids notice this unusual movement and manage to pull Psammead out of the sand by one of its legs. In the book, Psammead is supposed to be a sand fairy. In the movie, Psammead looks more like E.T.’s great-grandfather. The visual effects in this movie aren’t bad, but they’re not that great either.
It isn’t long before Psammead reveals to the children that he has magical powers to make wishes come true. The catch is that each person can get only one wish, and that wish expires by sunset on the day that the wish comes true. And as with a lot of movies that are aimed at kids, there’s a fart joke, because Psammead inflates himself and passes gas before he grants a wish.
The first wish that Psammead grants for the kids is Robbie’s wish to be able to be an expert climber. The next thing you know, Robbie is scaling the cliff rocks like he’s Spider-Man, and he retrieves his game device. The kids keep Psammead a secret from their parents and make other wishes over the next few days.
Smash’s wish is to become a world-famous pop star, so there’s an elaborate scene of Ros, Robbie and Maudie being whisked away to London in a hot-pink, custom helicopter that has Smash’s face painted on the side of the aircraft. In London, they’re VIP guests at Smash’s sold-out concert at the O2 Arena. Backstage before the show, Smash is catered to like a superstar. (Real-life British pop star Cheryl has a cameo in this scene as a pop singer named Coco Rayne.)
And then, Smash does a big song-and-dance routine for her concert before an ecstatic audience of thousands of people. It’s a performance that looks like something out of a TV talent show. And this scene has obvious CGI effects, since this movie obviously didn’t have the budget to rent out the O2 Arena and have thousands of extras to film this scene.
The kids lose track of time and encounter a major problem because Smash’s wish ends at sunset, thereby abruptly ending the concert. The helicopter and chauffeured transportation are gone, and the children have to scramble to find their way back to the beach house. Not surprisingly, their parents notice that the kids are missing, the police get involved, and the expected chaos and confusion ensue.
Maudie’s wish is pretty simple: the ability for all four of the kids to fly. And Ros’ wish involves going back in time and meeting the five children who were in the “Five Children and It” book: Cyril (played by Seán Treacy), Robert (played by Ely Sloan), Anthea (played by Emily Highams), Jane (played by Laura Kate Whyms) and baby boy Lamb (played by Leo and Jack Mulrooney-O’Brien).
There’s a subplot involving Tristan and a conflict that he has with the four kids. This part of the story makes the movie more of a convoluted mess, so this subplot won’t be described here, but it does lead to a very predictable conclusion.
Did the venerable, Oscar-winning actor Caine know when he signed on to this movie that it would turn out to be such a lackluster dud? Probably not. Fans of this actor will probably be a little disturbed that he ended up being the voice for such an odd-looking creature with a personality that isn’t very appealing. Psammead’s attitude with the children ranges from condescending to impatient to resigned, as in “Okay, I’ll do what you want. Just stop pestering me.”
British actor/comedian Brand is an acquired taste for a lot of people, so many viewers will either find him annoying or ineffective in his role as Tristan. Brand used to be known as an edgy and fairly controversial comedian who wouldn’t be caught dead in a children’s movie. Times have definitely changed.
As for the other actors in the cast, Malleson-Allen as Ros is best at making her character the most believable and relatable. As Ros’ nemesis Smash, Aufderheide is saddled with portraying an awful character—and unfortunately, Aufderheide over-acts in some scenes, which make Smash even more annoying to watch. The rest of the cast members do a serviceable but mostly unremarkable job with their roles.
“Four Children and It” author Wilson has a brief cameo during the film’s end credits, which might be overlooked if people experiencing this slow train-wreck of a movie don’t have the stomach to finish watching it. If you really won’t feel complete in life unless you see a movie with a decrepit E.T.-like creature voiced by a cranky-sounding Sir Michael Caine, as this creature makes wishes come true for quarreling children, then by all means watch “Four Kids and It.”
Lionsgate released “Four Kids and It” on DVD, Blu-ray, digital and VOD on June 30, 2020.